published Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

Chattanooga police facing old-car crime spree


by Cliff Hightower
  • photo
    Rhonda Hankins, an employee who runs the front desk at Lockwood Auto Salvage, stands amongst 10 acres of scrap vehicles in East Chattanooga early Monday afternoon.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

They pick them up anywhere and everywhere. On the sides of roads, in front yards and backyards.

A little-known Tennessee law allows thieves to game the system, selling stolen old cars to local scrap-metal yards, even if they can't prove they own the vehicle.

And police have a hard time dealing with it.

"We have several of them [stolen vehicles] suitcase-sized by the time we get there," said Chattanooga Police Department Chief Bobby Dodd.

Dodd plans to speak to the City Council today in an attempt to find some way to deal with the auto thefts. He and other law enforcement officers spent time last year lobbying the Tennessee General Assembly to pass laws that would limit scrap metal dealers from being able to shred or crush cars as they came in.

State law allows cars 12 years and older to be sold to scrap-metal companies without a title. Law enforcement authorities have said that leads some criminals to scope out abandoned cars, then sell them to the scrap or salvage yards.

After pressure from law enforcement, legislators passed a bill that requires a three-day waiting period before scrap metal dealers can strip or crush cars more than 12 years old that do not have a title.

Rhonda Hankins, an employee at Lockwood Auto Salvage, said people taking abandoned cars and passing them off as their own happens "all the time," and she's heard of thieves backing up trailers into people's yards to load up the cars.

She said her business will not buy anything unless it has a title.

The biggest problems lie with the middle men -- the towing companies that pick up the cars and sell them to the scrap yards, and most times it is rogue, unmarked tow companies looking to make a buck, Dodd said. He said he wants to ask the council to pass more regulations on the towing companies.

Dodd said lawmakers tried to convince the legislature to require a seven-day waiting period on cars that are more than 15 years old and don't have a title. But he said the law should require a title for any vehicle sold to a scrap metal yard.

"You should never be able to sell something without a title on it," he said.

State Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, helped craft the bill that went to the General Assembly. The original bill had a seven-day wait period and cars could be sold without a title only if they were 25 years or older, he said.

But the seven-day period was rolled back, and the 25-year period dropped to 12 because other surrounding states were at 12 years.

"None of the neighboring states were that high," he said. "We knew if we made it too high then [thieves] would go to neighboring states like Georgia or Alabama."

City Councilman Peter Murphy, chairman of the panel's Legal, Legislative and Safety Committee, said he's not sure if an ordinance would fix the problem or if an agreement could be ironed out with local scrap companies to be more persistent on weeding out potentially stolen cars.

One deterrent, he said, could be the metal companies voluntarily taking photos of those who sell the vehicles. He also said if someone repeatedly comes in selling cars, that should alert the metal dealers that something is not right.

"That would be a red flag, wouldn't it?" he asked.

Contact staff writer Cliff Hightower at chightower@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480. Follow him at twitter.com/cliffhightower or facebook.com/cliff.high tower.

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