In This Florida County, 62 Percent of Car Thieves Are Kids

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
in this florida county 62 percent of car thieves are kids

Twitter users are well aware of the hilarious and perplexing misadventures — usually fueled by alcohol or meth — of “Florida Man” and “Florida Woman,” but in Pinellas County, the person behind the wheel of your recently stolen vehicle is much more likely to be a Florida boy or girl.

There’s an epidemic afoot in the Gulf Coast county. Local law enforcement is scrambling to combat a growing tide of repeat juvenile car thieves as the danger on the county’s roads grows. Meanwhile, it seems local residents haven’t exactly made the thefts a difficult task.

The problem in the Clearwater-St. Petersburg area comes alive through a recent investigation by the Tampa Bay Times.

It isn’t an issue of statistics skewing the problem into something that looks worse than it is, either. Of all counties in the U.S., including far more populous jurisdictions, Pinellas is tops for kiddie car crime. In 2015, the county recorded 499 felony arrests for juvenile auto theft.

The same year, 62 percent of the county’s stolen vehicles were purloined by individuals under the age of 18.

The offenders, who frequently film their exploits and end up crashing, were as young as 10. A popular pastime — “doing the dash,” according to a two-time perp — involves kids burying a stolen vehicle’s speedometer needle while live-streaming the act via their phones.

The epidemic turned fatal long ago. Last year, three teen girls drowned after their stolen Honda Accord ended up at the bottom of a carefully landscaped cemetery pond. In response to the trend, local law enforcement has been forced to shovel scarce resources towards the problem — helicopters, dedicated officers, dogs.

While it sounds like the plot of an old B-movie about the dangers of smoking dope or hanging out with “artists,” the problem is all too real, and it’s not fueled by monetary gain or other adult motivations.

“How we haven’t had more people run over, injured, killed, just walking down the street, small kids, I have no idea,” St. Petersburg Detective Tim Brown told the Tampa Bay Times. “Because they come around the corner on two wheels. And it’s just — it’s fun for them.”

By the newspaper’s tally, 742 juvenile offenders were arrested for auto theft over an 18-month period in Pinellas County (January 2015 to June 2016). In 250 of the 529 thefts — 39 percent — kids entered an unlocked vehicle and discovered keys helpfully left behind by the owner. And that’s not the only thing they found. In numerous instances (52, to be exact), they also stumbled upon the owner’s gun.

A gun found in a stolen car was used to kill a Tarpon Springs police officer in 2014. Others were used against other kids in other stolen cars.

As Florida lists vehicle theft as a property crime, the punishment — assuming they survive the “dash” — amounts to a $300 fine. For one 17-year-old perp, the frizzy hair in her mug shot was the low point of her brief arrest.

Social standing among a peer group counts for much of the motivation. Fueled by social media posts, the majority of the thefts are simply the county’s bored kids making a game of it on Facebook and Instagram. Using social media connections as a trail of breadcrumbs, police discovered that 57 percent of the county’s underage car thieves all belong to the same loosely connected online peer group.

Basically, kids that steal cars are friends with kids who steal cars.

Naturally, there’s competing theories as to the underlying cause — a laid-back Florida attitude, boredom, absentee parents, or simply a lack of money among many youth are all possible motivators. Law forbids police officers from pursuing drivers who pose a greater risk to the public if chased, so suspected perpetrators of property crimes — such as auto theft — find it easy to make a getaway.

“For somebody to have to stand idly by and watch a juvenile drive around in circles at 100 miles per hour, waiting for him to kill a kid and then take the blame for it when he kills a kid because they didn’t do anything,” said Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter, “that’s not a fun day.

Should one of the teens find themselves in the arms of the law, state law dictates they’ll only spend a maximum of 21 days in juvenile detention before seeing their day in court. During that time, wholesome meals are served three times a day. There’s also plenty of networking.

One 17-year-old offender called the experience “day care,” adding that it’s the norm to exchange phone numbers with other car thieves. A large slice of the arrestees end up as repeat offenders, sometimes seeing the inside of the detention center a half dozen times.

For now, all that police, the judicial community and motorists can do — aside from locking their car doors — is throw up their hands in frustration, as there’s no sign of the trend ending anytime soon.

[Image: fourbyfourblazer/ Flickr ( CC BY 2.0)]

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  • Cartunez Cartunez on May 02, 2017

    Why on earth is anyone shocked here about the state of this country? Several foreign wars, the war of drugs, the war on men, the rise of the police state, etc etc. You reap what you sow and America has planted a massive crop. On the positive side I used to live in Apollo Beach Fl (south of tampa) and the area was very nice.

  • Ostrich67 Ostrich67 on May 05, 2017

    Wow, the gun nuts, racists, conspiracy theorists and Trump supporters (redundant I know) are out in force tonight! "State of this country"? The crime rate has never been lower overall, local hotspots notwithstanding.

  • Dukeisduke In an ideal world, cars would be inspected in the way the MoT in the UK does it, or the TÜV in Germany. But realistically, a lot of people can't afford to keep their cars to such a high standard since they need them for work, and widespread public transit isn't a thing here.I would like the inspections to stick around (I've lived in Texas all my life, and annual inspections have always been a thing), but there's so much cheating going on (and more and more people don't bother to get their cars inspected or registration renewed), so without rigorous enforcement (which is basically a cop noticing your windshield sticker is out of date, or pulling you over for an equipment violation), there's no real point anymore.
  • Zipper69 Arriving in Florida from Europe and finding ZERO inspection procedures I envisioned roads crawling with wrecks held together with baling wire, duct tape and prayer.Such proved NOT to be the case, plenty of 20-30 year old cars and trucks around but clearly "unsafe at any speed" vehicles are few and far between.Could this be because the median age here is 95, so a lot of low mileage vehicles keep entering the market as the owners expire?
  • Zipper69 At the heart of GM’s resistance to improving the safety of its fuel systems was a cost benefit analysis done by Edward Ivey which concluded that it was not cost effective for GM to spend more than $2.20 per vehicle to prevent a fire death. When deposed about his cost benefit analysis, Mr. Ivey was asked whether he could identify a more hazardous location for the fuel tank on a GM pickup than outside the frame. Mr. Ivey responded, “Well yes…You could put in on the front bumper.”
  • 28-Cars-Later I'll offer this, offer a registration for limited use and exempt it from all inspection. The Commonwealth of GFY for the most part is Dante's Inferno for the auto enthusiast however they oddly will allow an antique registration with limited use and complete exemption from their administrative stupidity but it must be 25 years old (which ironically are the cars which probably should be inspected). Given the dystopia being built around us, it should be fairly simply to set a mileage limitation and enforce a mileage check then bin the rest of it if one agrees to the terms of the registration. For the most part odometer data started being stored in the ECU after OBDII, so it should be plug and play to do such a thing - this is literally what they are doing now for their emissions chicanery.
  • Probert For around $15 you can have a professional check important safety areas - seems like a bargain. It pointed to a rear brake problem on my motorcycle. It has probably saved a lot of lives. But, like going to a dentist, no-one could say it is something they look forward to. (Well maybe a few - it takes all kinds...)