Hamilton County DA seeks to prosecutes juveniles as adults in carjacking cases

Staff Photo by Ellen Gerst / Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp speaks to reporters about juvenile crime and recent carjackings in Chattanooga at a news conference on Friday.

This story was updated to correct that 386 firearms were stolen from cars in the county in 2022.

The Hamilton County District Attorney's Office has requested to prosecute five teenagers, aged 14 to 16, as adults in two January carjacking cases, DA Coty Wamp said Friday.

"We take these very serious, whether it's an adult or juvenile, these are very serious types of charges," Wamp said at a news conference. "They are terrorizing, quite frankly."

The carjackings took place Jan. 26 and 28, and each involved three male teenagers, according to Wamp.

The first involved two 16-year-olds and one 14-year old, Wamp said. The second involved boys aged 13, 14 and 15, she said Friday. The teenagers face charges of aggravated robbery, in addition to carjacking, Wamp said.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga police report reduced theft, more DUIs in first month of 2023)

Wamp's office asked to move the cases of all but the 13-year-old out of juvenile court, so the teenagers could be prosecuted as adults.

"You cannot be transferred under those statutes as a 13-year-old," Wamp said Friday.

The decision on whether to transfer the cases lies with a juvenile court judge.

Wamp said her intention isn't to "lock juveniles up and throw away the key," and she acknowledged that teenagers' decision-making is not as developed as an adult's.

"However, we are in a place in Hamilton County where we have got to hold juveniles accountable, and unfortunately, some are just gonna have to be the example," Wamp said.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County mayor, district attorney aim to double trash pickup assignments, miles served)

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office reported zero carjackings involving juveniles in the past two years, according to an email from office spokesperson Matt Lea. The Chattanooga Police Department did not have juvenile carjacking numbers for 2021 or 2022 immediately available, Assistant Chief Jerri Sutton said in an email to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Sutton said the six teenagers have been the only juveniles arrested on that charge so far in 2023.

The district attorney declined to say whether the six teenagers are still in jail, citing the confidentiality of juvenile cases.

Wamp also said guns are a common element in violent crime in Hamilton County. In 2022, she said, 386 firearms were stolen from cars in the county, most of them from cars left unlocked. The majority of guns stolen were handguns, Wamp said.

The District Attorney's Office is starting a campaign to encourage people to lock their cars and to stop leaving guns inside.

As of 2021, stealing a firearm is a low-level felony in Tennessee that carries a minimum sentence of 180 days in prison if found guilty. Wamp said her office intends to enforce that law "harshly."

(READ MORE: Prisoner transport van carjacked at gunpoint Monday leads Marion County deputies on high-speed chase on I-24)

"If you are caught in this city with a stolen firearm, my office is going to be instructed that you are to serve that 180 days, if not more, every single time, unless there for some reason is an evidentiary issue," Wamp said.

Most firearm theft is taking place within Chattanooga city limits, Wamp said, centered on the downtown area but moving toward East Brainerd.

"They're doing it in nice neighborhoods across the county," she said. "They're doing it in urban neighborhoods. They're doing it at apartment buildings like my own. They're just checking to see if it's unlocked."

Contact Ellen Gerst at egerst@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6319.