Amid rash of car break-ins, D.C. zeroes in on a repeat offender

David Vines had been arrested almost five dozen times, about half of them for breaking into cars, when he appeared before a D.C. judge in November. He promised to return to the courtroom the next day to continue the hearing.

He never made it: He’d been arrested again, charged with breaking into another car. It was his 59th lockup.

More crime and safety news

Military pilot was fatally injured in crash in Va. mountains

Military pilot was fatally injured in crash in Va. mountains

The pilot, who was with the Mass. National Guard, was on his way to a military base in the New Orleans area

Ex-D.C. Council candidate sentenced for campaign fraud

“My campaign was not a fraud. Jeff Thompson was a fraud,” Jeff Smith says in court.

Young boy boy falls from apartment-building window

The child was taken to a hospital with serious injuries.

Read more

Over the past 10 years, Vines has “specialized in stealing from cars,” prosecutor Thomas Bednar wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “His capers have made him something of a legend.”

The fact that someone can achieve such status for perpetrating nuisance crimes helps illustrate the challenge the city faces as it tries to hold back the tide of car break-ins, which are on the rise in 2012.

In the past year, there have been more than 8,000 across the city. In some places, including the H Street corridor and the Eastern Market area, the number is more than double what it was this time last year.

The majority of car break-ins, police say, are committed by a handful of offenders such as Vines, who strike repeatedly and cycle in and out of jail. Now the city has mounted a vigorous effort to get more prison time for Vines, an undertaking even his lawyer calls “remarkable.”

Vines is scheduled to be sentenced next month in two plea agreements for contempt and theft charges stemming from incidents in October and November. Prosecutors are asking for a four-year sentence, which would be the stiffest sentence for Vines by far — and the culmination of an enormous effort by residents and law enforcement.

“I have never seen a community work so hard to put one man in jail,” said Vines’s lawyer, Derrick Hamlin. Bednar wrote the 18-page memorandum, and residents submitted more than two dozen community impact statements for D.C. Superior Court Judge Ronna L. Beck to consider.

Hamlin declined to discuss the specifics of the cases but said his client disputes some of the charges. “Any time a car is broken into in the neighborhood, police say, ‘Let’s go find Mr. Vines,’ ” Hamlin said.

‘Neighborhood nuisance’

Vines, 48, has been convicted 29 times in the past 30 years, mostly for crimes on Capitol Hill. At a hearing last month, he told Beck he is in failing health and is addicted to drugs and alcohol. During a recent arrest, according to court records, officers found a crack pipe in his pocket.

When convicted, Vines’s sentences have generally been short. Prosecutors and judges have looked at his cases in isolation, often treating them as individual petty crimes. Some charges have been dropped because he took little of value — a Metro card, for example, or a handful of change.

“He has become the archetype of the neighborhood nuisance, an offender who gets himself arrested over and over for doing the same thing in the same neighborhood, showing no remorse,” reads Bednar’s memo.

The reason Vines has so many more arrests than convictions is that he often has many cases pending at one time and pleads them out “cheaply,” with one or two cases dismissed in return for one conviction, according to Bednar.

Individually, each crime is small. Vines has been caught stealing $10 from one car, a bag from another. When such offenses are brought before a judge, defendants rarely get serious sanctions.

But the totality of Vines’s crimes is why the city is trying to stop people like him. They’ve assigned police officers to special shifts with the mission of catching thieves who break into cars. And the D.C. Council passed a three-strikes law in 2009 that allows prosecutors to charge misdemeanor theft as a felony if a defendant has been convicted of the same count twice before.

The crimes Vines has been arrested for — often either theft or unlawful entry into a vehicle — are misdemeanors with maximum sentences of 90 and 180 days in jail. Offenders often are not given the maximum sentence or are freed after serving just days or weeks.

In 2009, he went behind bars for a year on a three-strikes theft charge. He likely was the first person to be locked up under that statute, according to Bednar.

When he got out, he struck again. “The only real question . . . is how long it will be until Vines commits his next crime,” wrote Bednar.

‘Cost of living in the city’

Police say serial break-ins can have a profound effect on some neighborhoods. “Some people are just beside themselves,” said Daniel Hickson, commander of the 1st District, which includes Capitol Hill. “Imagine if you come out of your house and your car is broken into and you see six other cars have their windows smashed out. Come back two weeks later, and it’s deja vu.”

The spoils of car break-ins are a mixed bag. Sometimes thieves get a few dollars in coins, a dirty T-shirt or food. Other times, they’ll find a Global Positioning System device or an iPad. Some victims have reported odd items, such as cat food, being taken.

But that’s not the end of the hassle for car owners. They may have to miss work to file a police report, and repairs — if, for instance, a window is broken — can cost more time and money. When it’s over, they’re left with a nagging sense that their neighborhood wasn’t as safe as they thought.

“I’m resigned to the fact that there’s not much I can do about it,” said Capitol Hill resident Sean Newell, 30, whose Toyota Yaris has been broken into three times since November. “I don’t think they’re targeting my car. I think I have bad luck.”

Someone broke his back triangle window Nov. 16, stealing a pair of running gloves and his wife’s black licorice. Repairs cost him $270. The window was intact for less than 24 hours when he was hit again. The window was cracked, but this time there was nothing in the car to steal.

He put cardboard in his window, waiting a month to fix it. Four days later, the car was broken into once more. “I guess it’s the cost of living in the city,” said Newell, who lives near Eastern Market.

One Capitol Hill resident whose car was broken into twice, most recently in January, said she has started leaving her glove compartment and change box hanging open to show there’s nothing in them. Another leaves his car doors intentionally unlocked — but says his windows have been smashed nonetheless.

On some blocks, residents have discussed hiring private security. “Some say we have the ‘street of glistening gutters’ because there’s so much broken glass,” said community activist David Holmes, who lives in Capitol Hill, where the 1st District has seen break-ins jump by about 40 percent this year.

According to D.C. police data, there have been about 1,450 “thefts from auto” this year. Those numbers, however, understate the nuisance.

Many people do not report the crime to police, thinking it a hassle. The number of cases counted, meanwhile, only counts incidents in which something was stolen. That means two of Newell’s cases were recorded as “destruction of property.”

And an incident in which 23 cars were broken into in one Northeast Washington condominium garage last month is counted as a single crime because it happened under one roof.

Arrests are difficult to make. The crimes usually happen quickly under the cover of darkness, making it difficult for police to catch someone.

“Your timing has to be impeccable because they occur so quickly,” said Hickson, the police commander.

Hickson said some thieves will walk a street from end to end, trying every door handle; others will target a block or two and smash five or six windows in a row.

“It’s like a guy who goes fishing,” said Hickson. “They throw their line in and see what they get.”

Even when police catch someone breaking into a car near others that have been hit, it’s often difficult to tie them to more than one crime unless there’s a witness or physical evidence.

Police urge people not to leave anything of value in their cars. “Recently one lady e-mails me and says, ‘I hid my iPod, but they broke in anyway and got it,’ ” Hickson said. “I told her, “We didn’t say hide them, we said take them in your house.’ ”

No matter what happens with Vines at his sentencing April 6, police say car break-ins on Capitol Hill are certain to continue. Even with Vines in jail since November, they’re on the rise this year.

And another repeat offender known to be a window-smasher — Vines is a door-puller — was released from jail in January.

 
Read what others are saying