Jerry Kopel

"All crime is local"

Paraphrasing former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's famous quote "All politics is local".


Good news! The FBI reports property crime is down nationally, unless of course, it's your property that has been stolen. This column gives you an idea of what to expect from law enforcement if it ever happens to you.

I own a 1990 Honda, which was sitting in front of my house the night of Saturday, Oct. 11th. Sometime between 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m., several juveniles smashed the driver's side window, took the jack from the trunk, used construction blocks (obtained from who knows where) to place under the car, proceeded to jack up the car and strip it of three of the wheels. They were frightened off before they could finish taking the fourth wheel.

How do I know it was several juveniles? A neighbor across the street had heard the noise, looked out, saw them as they were under the bright street light, but thought they were changing a tire on their own car because trees obscured an entire view of the vehicles.

A security car (our area hires a private security service) notified us of the car stripping at 1 a.m. The police stopped by shortly afterwards to offer their condolences and have me sign a police report without the opportunity to read what I was signing. I have never received a copy of any police report.

On Tuesday, Oct. 13th, a woman actually stopped by the Empire Honda garage where our car was being repaired, to offer the parts department three Honda wheels and tires, which she claimed to have obtained from her juvenile brother for $250 for her Honda. Unfortunately, the wheels did not fit her 1989 Honda.

The police detective notified us that they had questioned the woman, and her juvenile brother who said he got the property from a friend of a friend, named "Sergio". These events allegedly took place at or around Manual High. The detective also told us the assistant district attorney wasn't interested in following up, because she (the DA) couldn't be certain of a conviction.

We had the remaining wheel and tire. Even though we did not have the serial numbers, they were all the original tires and wheels, used by us during the non-winter months, were the same brand, had the same markings all over, and, if available to us for inspection, would have been identical in wear to the remaining tire.

We found out later the detective HAD confiscated the three wheels and tires, but didn't tell us they were available for inspection at police headquarters. And the detective didn't ask us for the name or address of the witness, who might plausibly have been able to identify the woman's juvenile brother if he had been at the crime scene.

What happened is known in the criminal trade as "steal for hire". You place an order and the thief travels around until the right car is found. There were many more expensive cars with more expensive wheels sitting on our street that Saturday night, only they weren't Hondas.

The wheels and tires were returned to this woman by the police. She will continue to visit Honda dealers in hopes of finding one shop that will buy three wheels and tires. Eventually she will sell them, and continue to seek a set of 1989 Honda wheels.

Will "Sergio" (if such a person really exists) get another "steal to buy" order? Will he possibly drop by your street? If your 1989 Honda is sitting out in front, will you wake up some morning soon to find your four Honda wheels and tires stripped?

Being attorneys who know a little bit about criminal law, my wife and I were rather sharp and unpleasant in our discussion with Denver Detective Richard Leslie, expressing our frustration with him and assistant district attorney DeAnne Conroy (who never returned any of our calls). "Ma'am" said Detective Leslie to my wife, "I deal with it everyday."

The detective kept insisting the woman had purchased the tires and wheels for $250 in "good faith" and didn't know they were stolen and therefore she owned the wheels and tires. To the detective, that was the law. Of course it's not the law. The law is CRS 18-4-405 entitled "Rights in Stolen Property", in which the first sentence reads:

"All property obtained by theft, robbery, or burglary shall be restored to the owner, and no sale, whether in good faith on the part of the purchaser or not, shall divest the owner of his right to such property."

The rest of the statute provides for treble damages, court costs and reasonable attorney fees under certain circumstances. I happened to know about the statute because I was a co-sponsor of the 1973 revision, and the chief sponsor of the 1987 revision.

Our insurance has paid over $1100 for our loss after the deductible, so they are technically the owner of the stolen wheels and tires. We have given them the name, address, and phone number of the woman, if they want to pursue the matter in a civil action. Your insurance will likely pay you when "Sergio" steals your Honda wheels. So is everybody happy?

The folks at Empire Honda tell me there was an epidemic of car stripping in Denver this past summer. Did you read any newspaper stories about it? I didn't. Empire Honda has had to repair a large number of cars stripped, one of which, I was told, cost one insurance company $12,000 for repairs.

The detective kept telling us "the case is closed." It may be "closed", but it is not "resolved". The Denver Police files have tens of thousands of unsolved property crimes, and each one represents an angry family of voters. Sometimes the property isn't discovered, or there are no witnesses, and you have to accept that the case can't be solved. That wasn't true in this case.

Someone needs to run for Denver mayor in 1999 and tell voters these crimes are worth solving. The mayor, of course, chooses the police chief. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has managed to reduce big crime in his city, by going after the "little" crime. Too bad that's not a priority in Denver.


Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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