Teen Auto Theft Spirals Out of Control in Pinellas County

Teens in Pinellas County have brought the notorious game Grand Theft Auto into the third-dimension. An epidemic of underage kids strikes every night, stealing cars and going for joy rides. In the process, they destroy the cars they steal, risk their lives, and endanger others. On occasion, they die in the process.

The issue has gone unresolved for several years, as juveniles who are apprehended by law enforcement go right back to stealing cars after a short stay in juvenile detention. The Tampa Bay-based Caruthers Institute attempts to gain insight into the issue that they hope will help lawmakers develop policy changes. They have started an $85,000 research project to craft policy recommendations for the Florida Legislature. Ultimately, they aim to reduce crime and save lives.

Pinellas County Teens Turn a Felony Offense into a Spectator Sport

According to Tampa Bay Times, a kid crashes a stolen car in Pinellas County as often as every four days. In 2015, Pinellas County police arrested 499 kids for juvenile auto theft, more than any other county in the entire country. In almost every other county in Florida, the majority of arrests for felony auto theft are adults; in Pinellas, 62% are under 18. Reporters with Tampa Bay Times delved into the phenomenon to understand the gravity of the situation.

Reporters discovered that delinquent teens check unlocked vehicles; on average, teens steal three unlocked cars per week. Teens who steal cars use social media to connect with each other. On social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, they brag about their escapades and exchange tips. Pinellas teens have created a whole culture of grand theft auto, going so far as developing slang to talk about it.

These teens often find guns in cars and shoot them off. They record themselves flooring the gas pedal on their phones to prove it to their friends. They drive at high speeds in the wrong direction, lose control of vehicles, and ram them into poles or flip them over. They crash into innocent drivers or police cars on patrol. They show no fear of hurting themselves or getting caught. When they get their mugshots taken, they regret they didn’t take a better picture. Police officers sometimes catch the same teen multiple times a week. From law enforcement to judges, everyone’s hands are tied.

Is the Juvenile Justice System Broken?

In March 2016, three teen girls from St. Petersburg fled cops in a stolen Honda when they drove into a pond and drowned. It turned out that between all three of them, they had amassed seven grand theft auto arrests in a one-year period leading up to the tragic crash.

Juveniles who turn to crime don’t take long to learn they will proceed through Juvenile Detention rather quickly; in many cases, teens spend a few hours at the facility before they return home. They understand the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice uses a point system to determine how much of a threat they are to society. This system prevents judges from issuing harsher punishments. It takes a total of 12 points to hold a kid after an arrest; a first-time car theft charge receives zero points.

Many teens who get caught stealing cars are sentenced to probation or mental health or substance abuse counseling. Some are ordered to spend a few months at residential programs; often, there is no availability when they are sentenced, so they return home to an environment that may be conducive to criminal activity.

What’s Next for Troubled Teens in Pinellas County?

The conclusion of the study will be used to change the system in ways that lawmakers hope will be more effective to curb teen car theft. A member of the project’s advisory committee expects that some of the recommendations will address the personal lives of the teens considering many of them have encountered troubling situations that may make them more prone to resorting to crime as an outlet.

In at least one case, a 16-year-old was sentenced to serve four years in prison after he was convicted of carjacking. The teen had stolen 30 cars in 3 years and had been in and out of the juvenile justice system dozens of times. After his last carjacking attempt, he ran over the owner of the vehicle’s foot and was directly filed into the adult prison system.

Teens who get in trouble with the law may be too young to understand the extent of the harm they are doing to their reputations. Florida’s direct-file system makes it incredibly easy for prosecutors to consider a juvenile’s criminal history and place him or her in a harsh prison environment among dangerous adults, where studies show a teen is more likely to turn into a hardened criminal.

The Umansky Law Firm has worked with dozens of teens and their families to protect them from ruining their entire futures due to poor choices they made as children. We are a team of former prosecutors who have over 100 years of combined criminal law experience providing strong defense in central Florida. Call 407-228-3838 or contact us online for a free case review.