Emergency legislation to impose mandatory minimum sentences on chronic car thieves is expected to come before the D.C. Council this week as lawmakers attempt to put the brakes on juvenile joy riders.
Two people have been killed within the past month in accidents involving stolen vehicles that were driven by juveniles, and a third died in a crash blamed on reckless driving. The fatalities are a grim echo of similar deaths last year, and city officials are under pressure to act.
But the issue of setting mandatory penalties is controversial, and with the council about to go on its summer recess, the fate of the legislation is uncertain.
Council members Harold Brazil (D-At Large) and David A. Catania (R-At Large) are sponsoring two bills that are expected to be introduced Tuesday and that would remain in effect for 90 days if passed as emergency legislation.
Catania said action needs to be taken immediately -- by the council and, more importantly, by police and the other arms of the criminal justice system.
In one recent case, a 14-year-old was charged as a juvenile with second-degree murder in the death of a Silver Spring man who was an accomplished activist on behalf of his native Haiti. Marx Aristide, 37, was driving June 19 when a stolen car slammed into his car at 14th Street and Florida Avenue NW.
Another youth, Andrew Lofty, 16, was charged as an adult with second-degree murder in the death of Terry Andrew Weaver, 21. Weaver was struck by a stolen van while riding a moped July 2 in the 4400 block of G Street SE. A 12-year-old passenger in the van was charged with unauthorized use of a vehicle.
Beside the cases involving stolen vehicles, a 16-year-old was charged as a juvenile with second-degree murder, driving without a permit and reckless driving in the death of a 78-year-old woman struck by a car June 25 on Bladensburg Road NE. The victim, Olivia Staten of Northeast Washington, died July 3.
Catania said that residents are outraged, and rightly so. "Aside from the tragic deaths, there is a daily diminishment of the quality of life in these neighborhoods due to this lawlessness," he said.
One bill stiffening penalties for adults who repeatedly steal cars already was in the pipeline, having been introduced late last month, and that head start might make its passage more likely. Along with increasing the maximum fine and prison time, the bill would require a person convicted of unauthorized use of a vehicle to serve at least three months behind bars unless the conviction was a first offense.
Catania said police, prosecutors and the courts blame each other for the failure to rein in the most recalcitrant car thieves, who in turn are often the inspiration for younger imitators. A mandatory minimum, he said, would introduce a measure of certainty to the process.
"The judge will not have the discretion to let people off," Catania said. "This is really geared toward the recidivist, the repeat offenders, and because there's been so much finger-pointing between the prosecutors and the police and the judges about why we can't get these people off the street, the legislature is having to step in and take some of the discretion away from the justice system."
Mandatory minimums are in place for only a handful of crimes in the District, including first-degree murder, carjacking and certain armed offenses. While supportive of such penalties for certain crimes, U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Wainstein and his staff are weighing the merits of a mandatory minimum for unauthorized use of a vehicle, said Wainstein's chief legislative liaison, Patricia A. Riley.
Notice of the other bill, which would create the first mandatory minimum for a juvenile offense, went out only last week. Going into the weekend, the legislation was being refined, according to Brazil's office, making its prospects for quick approval less certain.
Whenever it is taken up, the idea of a mandatory minimum for juveniles found to have engaged in unauthorized use of a vehicle will be controversial. Critics of such a change argue that the city has not done enough to fight the underlying social problems that drive juvenile car thefts.
The long-running problems at Oak Hill, the city's juvenile detention facility, and in the city's juvenile justice agency, the Youth Services Administration, raise questions about how the city would handle what could be a flood of mandatory commitments.
"I think mandatory minimums for [unauthorized use of a vehicle], particularly if it's done on an emergency basis, is shortsighted," said Judge Lee F. Satterfield, who oversees the District's juvenile and family courts. "I think you have to focus on prevention strategies."
But other officials, while acknowledging the necessary differences between juvenile and adult systems, say that more persuasive sanctions are needed against juveniles who steal cars repeatedly.
"We have to find a way to sort of keep tabs and keep control of these repeat offenders, whether it's through a mandatory minimum at Oak Hill or some other mandatory commitment," D.C. Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti said in an interview.
Along with representing the city and its agencies in an array of civil capacities, the attorney general -- known until recently as the corporation counsel -- prosecutes suspects charged as juveniles.
Spagnoletti, a federal prosecutor before joining the District government, has in recent days seized on the car theft problem and its sometime deadly consequences. He said his office handles about 600 cases related to auto thefts each year.
Twice in the past two weeks, his office has issued news releases to announce that it had filed murder charges against juveniles in connection with traffic fatalities.
Typically, the city's attorneys will say little, if anything, officially about charges against juveniles. Not only did the recent news releases outline the charges against the juveniles, but they included commentary from Spagnoletti about the community impact of the car theft problem.
"Victims and members of the community are begging us to act swiftly to strengthen the juvenile justice laws to provide for greater accountability for youth," Spagnoletti said in one statement.