The Dyer Act, popularly known as the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, made interstate transportation of stolen vehicles a federal crime. This law imposed harsh sentences — fines and up to 10 years imprisonment — on those who transported stolen vehicles across state lines. Passed in 1919, the Dyer Act was an attempt to supplement states’ efforts to combat automobile theft. Particularly in areas close to state lines, state law enforcement authorities were seriously hampered by car thieves’ ability to transport stolen vehicles beyond the jurisdiction in which the theft occurred.
No further Federal intervention occurred until Congress established the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the mid 1960s. Title 49 of the United States Code, Chapter 301, Motor Vehicle Safety, required NHTSA to issue Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) and Regulations to which manufacturers of motor vehicle and equipment items must conform and certify compliance. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 115 required all road-going motor vehicles to have a vehicle identification number (VIN). This requirement was phased in over several years. Starting on January 1, 1969, all passenger cars manufactured in the United States, or manufactured overseas and subsequently imported into the United States, on or after January 1, 1969, were required to have a VIN. As a practical rule of thumb, this means that every passenger car from model year 1970 to date has been required by the Department of Transportation (DOT) to have a VIN. At first the VIN’s characteristics (i.e., its length, the types and kinds of information encoded within particular positions or sections of the VIN, etc.) for passenger cars could be determined by each manufacturer. After January 1st 1980, VINs were required to use a uniform 17-character format.
Congress enacted the Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act in order to reduce the incidence of motor vehicle theft and facilitate the tracing and recovery of stolen motor vehicles and parts from stolen vehicles. With this legislation, Congress began to respond to the growing professionalism of motor vehicle theft during the prior two decades. The Department of Transportation implemented the 1984 Act by issuing the Federal Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Standard, requiring manufacturers of designated high-theft passenger car lines to put the VIN on the engine, the transmission, and 12 major body parts. This measure was aimed at professional “chop shops,” which used stolen motor vehicles to get replacement parts for other vehicles damaged in accidents. As these “crash” parts (i.e., fenders, doors, hoods, etc.) were not previously marked with identification numbers, they were nearly impossible to identify as stolen once separated from the stolen vehicle.
The 1984 Act provided criminal penalties for altering or removing motor vehicle identification numbers; and allows seizure and forfeiture of vehicles or components with falsified or removed identification numbers. In addition, the 1984 Act authorized US Customs to require that exporters of used motor vehicles submit a proof of ownership containing the VIN to the Customs Service before exporting the vehicle.
The 1984 law provided additional teeth for prosecutors by bringing interstate trafficking in stolen vehicles and parts under federal racketeering statutes (RICO) and by imposing heavy fines and prison terms for export violations. RICO convictions keep criminals behind bars for years and include stiff financial penalties and confiscation of personal property.
A provision in another law, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, made it a federal offense to counterfeit or forge motor vehicle title certificates. This law sought to prevent professional criminals from using counterfeit documents to dispose of stolen vehicles on the legitimate market.
The Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992 made armed auto theft (“carjacking”) a federal crime, and created a new offense making it a federal crime to own, operate, maintain, or control a chop shop. The act provided funding to link all state motor vehicle departments, in order to ensure national access to title information, as well as implementing standards to improve vehicle titling, registration, and salvage information. It required state DMVs to check VINs of out-of-state cars before issuing titles to new owners, and forced auto recyclers and repair shops that sell or install used parts to check VINS against the FBI’s stolen-car database. Dealing in stolen marked parts became a Federal crime, and a grant program was authorized to help local law enforcement agencies deal with auto theft. Other provisions required Customs officials to perform spot checks of cars and containers leaving the country, and began a pilot program of x-raying containers to prevent the export of stolen vehicles. It expanded the 1984 Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act parts-marking requirement to include vans and utility vehicles with higher-than-average theft rates, and half of the passenger car, van and SUV lines with lower-than-average theft rates.
The Act required insurers to certify that the salvaged or junked vehicles they sell are not stolen; and established a grant program for state and local anti-car theft committees, funded by car taxes or fees.
The Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Act (part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994), required the Attorney General to develop, in cooperation with the States, a national voluntary motor vehicle theft prevention program, in which a car’s owner could sign a consent form authorizing law enforcement officers to stop the car if it were being operated under specified conditions (for instance, late at night or in certain urban neighborhoods). Participating motorists must display a program decal on their vehicles. Additionally, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act made carjacking where death results a federal crime punishable by death.
The Anti-Car Theft Improvements Act of 1996 upgraded state motor-vehicle department databases containing title information, enabling federal and state law enforcement officials to instantly determine if a suspect motor vehicle is stolen. The Act also granted limited immunity from civil liability to the providers of titling information and to those who aid law enforcement.
At least 10 states have created Automobile Theft Prevention Authorities (ATPAs), funded by surcharges on insurance policies or by driver’s license and registration fees. A federally-funded Combat Auto Theft (CAT) program provides registered auto owners with window stickers that allow police to stop their cars for theft checks during certain hours. New York City’s CAT program covers more than 100,000 cars and boasts a theft rate of only 0.7 percent, versus 7.1 percent for other vehicles in the city. Other high-theft metropolitan areas have instituted auto-theft task forces with some degree of success. Newark’s auto-theft task force is responsible for reducing the city’s theft rate from the worst in the country to sixteenth in just seven years. They recovered 2,400 stolen vehicles and made 2,200 arrests during the same period.
In many states, new title certificates that are difficult to alter or counterfeit have been issued, printed with erasure-sensitive inks on colored paper containing multicolored threads (just like money), and including the vehicle’s odometer reading at the time of issue.
Private organizations that combat auto theft
The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) keeps on-line databases, which allow member insurance companies to search by driver identification data, license plate number, vehicle identification number (VIN), and component vehicle part and type numbers. Information leading to the identification of the vehicle used in the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 was obtained through one of NICB’s databases. The system reconstructed the VIN from the partial VIN found in the wreckage, and matched it to a van stolen from a truck rental company on the day of the bombing.
The Coalition to Reduce Auto Fraud and Theft (CRAFT) represents a group of insurance organizations, insurers and the NICB. They lobby state and federal legislators trying to get laws passed that deter auto theft, and have had some success in certain states.
- Vehicle Chop Shop, Stolen and Altered Property Act: This law imposes criminal sanctions on persons involved with chop shops — garages or lots where stolen vehicles are brought to be stripped of their components. It provides for forfeiture of tools and equipment involved in chop shops and allows for civil remedies, including treble damages and injunctive relief, for those aggrieved by chop shop operations.
- Salvage Certificate Junk Vehicle Act: This law helps to standardize salvage vehicle documents. It regulates all salvage or junk vehicle documents whether the vehicle is insured or not. It also provides an effective procedure for the detitling of non-repairable junk vehicles and mandates surrender of a junk or salvage vehicle’s title; ends the title chain of a junk vehicle; and establishes a paper trail to detect and prevent fraud and theft.
- Vehicle Owner Fraud Act: This legislation combats owner give-ups — where the vehicle owner is in collusion with others to file a fraudulent claim. Knowingly making, or assisting in making a false claim for theft, destruction or damage, or illegally obtaining vehicle ownership by making false statements are classified as felonies.
- The False Police Report Act: This law makes it a crime to knowingly make, or assist with, a false report of theft, destruction or damage of any property to a law enforcement agency. Generally, the first offense is a misdemeanor, and subsequent offenses are felonies.