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These idle warnings aren't

Oxnard police give lectures and $65 tickets to people who leave cars running unattended.

March 23, 2007|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Car theft is a big enough problem without motorists making it easier for thieves by leaving their cars running unattended on the street.

To help remind Oxnard residents that this practice is both careless and punishable by a fine in the city, a task force of 15 police officers fanned out before dawn Thursday, citing 41 offenders in about two hours.

"It happens every day," said Det. Enrique Alvarez, Oxnard's auto theft investigator. "I'm sure you've seen it: Somebody warming up their car, then they go back into the house."

During Thursday's sweep, Alvarez delivered stern lectures to violators along with $65 citations.

For Sergio Garcia, it was a close call -- he was moments from becoming a theft victim. He told police he left his Toyota pickup running in front of his residence when an unidentified woman slipped into the truck and gunned the engine. But the woman apparently fled because she couldn't work the truck's manual transmission.

Speaking in Spanish, Garcia told responding officers that he had gone inside his house just long enough to use the bathroom.

"It could have been a lot worse for you," Alvarez warned him. "You could have lost your truck, and your insurance would have gone up."

In another case, Christina Figueroa told police that she left her sport utility vehicle running in order to retrieve some clothing inside the house for her 8-year-old son, Julian.

"I never do this," she told police after being issued a citation. "This was the first time."

Often stolen vehicles contain valuables -- wallets, purses, iPods and laptop computers -- that can lead to other crimes, such as forgery, identity theft and credit card fraud, police said. Even violent crimes sometimes can be traced to vehicles stolen from negligent owners, Alvarez said.

"People steal cars and use them for residential robberies, burglaries and drive-by shootings," he said. "A lot of people believe they need to warm up cars before they leave for work, even new cars. But with modern fuel injection systems, it's not necessary."

Motor vehicle theft is a serious problem statewide, with the number of incidents in California soaring from 181,049 in 2000 to 251,747 in 2004, a 39% increase. In Ventura County, vehicle thefts shot up nearly 90%, from 1,259 incidents to 2,389 during the same five-year period.

But the city of Ventura had more than 12% fewer auto thefts last year. And while Oxnard saw its vehicle thefts drop about 41%, from 1,038 incidents in 2004 to 614 last year, Alvarez said nearly a third of those vehicles stolen had keys in them and were running at the time.

Oxnard is one of the few jurisdictions that specifies on its auto theft reports whether a vehicle was running when it was stolen. As a result, Alvarez said it is nearly impossible to quantify the extent of the problem statewide.

Alvarez said things got so bad in Oxnard that a provision was added to the municipal code to make the practice illegal, punishable by the $65 citation.

There is also a section of the California Vehicle Code that makes it unlawful for the person in charge of a motor vehicle to let it sit on a highway unattended without setting the parking brake and stopping the motor. So if a vehicle is running but unattended inside a garage, in a driveway or a parking lot with no public access, then no law has been broken.

Thursday's sweep was the third by Oxnard police. Police issued 65 citations last fall and 58 last spring.

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greg.griggs@latimes.com

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