A social media challenge is prompting an increase in car thefts across Sussex County, but some are connected to other criminal activity, police say.
Of about a dozen car thefts or attempted car thefts so far this year, most have occurred in the Lewes area, said Sgt. Timothy Powell, who works with the Property Crimes Unit at Delaware State Police Troop 4.
“They’re using the cars to commit more crimes, joyriding or as another means of transportation,” he said.
Since January, teens as young as 13 have been involved in stealing cars across the state. On Jan. 19, police say, a Magnolia girl, 13, and a Milford girl, 15, stole a Chevy Malibu at 1:44 a.m. from a Wawa on Ogletown Stanton Road in New Castle. The car was later found near I-95 and Frawley Stadium in Wilmington, and the teens were hiding in a marsh nearby. The teen girls were charged with felony motor theft and second-degree conspiracy, and committed to New Castle County Detention Center in default of $5,000 secured bond each. Also arrested was 18-year-old Sherron Elam-Coursey of Wilmington, who was charged with receiving stolen property and released on his own recognizance.
Police could not comment on this case, along with others that remain under investigation.
In Sussex County, Powell said there have been about a dozen, mostly in the Lewes area. On July 31, a Lewes boy, 13, and Rehoboth Beach boy, 16, stole a car that ended up in a mobile home park near Nassau. A Wilmington teen was charged Aug. 9 in connection with a stolen car from the Tall Pines park near Route 9. On Aug. 22, two teens were charged with stealing a Volkswagen Tiguan found in an Ellendale neighborhood.
In the City of Lewes, however, Police Chief Thomas Spell said all has been quiet, with no thefts or attempted thefts reported.
Finding out what is driving the thefts is difficult, particularly when teens or parents do not cooperate, Powell said.
While some kids are just joyriding and abandoning cars unharmed in a tucked-away area, he said, others are using them to commit more crimes such as shoplifting or stealing other vehicles.
“It’s across the board,” he said. “At least what I’m seeing in Sussex County is teenagers up to the age of 18. We’re getting pockets or clusters of different individuals from one region to another. But sometimes it's a lone individual acting on something they saw or learned about.”
Most of them, he said, are part of a Kia/Hyundai challenge that has been shared on social media.
In February, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration posted a story about millions of Hyundais and Kias that have been stolen, resulting in 14 crashes and eight deaths. Since then, the car companies have worked to install anti-theft software that extends the horn alert when a car is broken into, while requiring a key in the ignition for it to start. The car companies have also provided thousands of steering-wheel locks to prevent car thefts. The Town of Cambridge recently announced it is giving away steering-wheel locks for Kias and Hyundais in an effort to deter car thefts.
Although national insurance groups say the multibillion-dollar vehicle theft industry is linked to organized crime in metropolitan areas such as Chicago or Philadelphia, DSP’s Powell said he has not seen that in Sussex County, yet.
Still others say criminal justice reform has played a role with soft penalties, particularly for juveniles. But in Delaware, the penalties for vehicle theft or carjackings are significant despite recent criminal justice reform.
“Both charges remain felonies, and there has not been a significant change in terms of bail amounts, detention time or other penalties,” said Mat Marshall, spokesman for the Delaware Department of Justice.
A theft of a motor vehicle charge is a nonviolent, low-level felony that alone does not presumptively carry jail time or a recommendation of cash or secured bond, Marshall said.
“Of course, other factors such as age, criminal history, noncompliance with prior orders, etc., could change that presumption,” he said.
Before resolving a case, he said, the deputy attorney general considers the strength of the case, mitigation and the victim’s opinion.
Carjackings are different, with several factors that are taken into consideration when filing an offense. Carjackings that do not involve a weapon or cause harm are charged as second-degree robbery, while carjackings where a weapon is used or a victim is harmed are charged as first-degree robbery.
“These are both violent felonies,” Marshall said. “These kids are frequently detained at a secured or nonsecured facility pending resolution of their charges.”
Additionally, he said, if the child is adjudicated for first-degree robbery and is 16 or older, the court must sentence the child to six months of institutional confinement for the first offense and 12 months for each subsequent offense.
“This sentence has not changed with the recent criminal justice reform. The DOJ’s mission is to rehabilitate delinquent youth, but it is still a requirement that the juvenile be held accountable and the victim be made whole,” Marshall said.
Insurance price hike
Organized or not, even those seemingly innocent joyrides come with a price.
“One woman had to wait two weeks to get her window replaced after they smashed it to steal her car,” Powell said.
The cost on car insurance can be significant.
Christina Haas, senior policy advisor with the Delaware Department of Insurance, said insurers have requested rate and coverage revisions for Kia and Hyundai vehicles because of the social media trend.
“As far as general background, loss of a vehicle due to theft is considered in a fairly similar fashion to total loss in an accident,” she said. “Insureds experiencing theft should be aware that their carrier may delete claim-related discounts that were previously on a policy [such as a discount for not having a claim for five years], which may lead a person to perceive that their rate has increased.”
A consumer with a high-deductible policy would incur a higher personal expense for a stolen car the same way they would if they were in an accident, she said. They would be paid depending on the vehicle value, their policy details, and their coverage.