By Karen Zautyk
In the 1990s, law enforcement authorities report, Essex County led the nation in car thefts. Due to improved vehicle security systems, it has become more difficult for an amateur to steal an unattended car. That’s the good news.
The bad news: Because of that difficulty, there has been an increase in carjackings, the number of such crimes growing steadily each year. The Essex carjacking tally for 2009 was just over 200. It now stands at more than 400 per year countywide.
In a new effort to deter would-be carjackers, federal, state and county officials have announced a joint initiative “aimed at raising awareness of the serious consequences carjackers face.”
At a press conference launching the project, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said, “Carjacking terrorizes victims and the communities in which they live and work. The penalty for these crimes is appropriately tough. Carjackers prosecuted federally can face decades in prison, far from home, in a system with no parole.”
Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn A. Murray noted: “Carjacking is not the same as taking a stolen car for a joyride. When you pull out a gun and demand someone’s vehicle, that is a serious crime and the penalties are severe…
“We want to send that message to young people who sometimes seem to view carjacking as nothing more than a theft.”
To get that message across, there will be billboards and bus placards posted, and flyers distributed.
Additionally, local police departments in Essex are being brought on board. Last month, the Belleville PD joined the initiative, along with East Orange and Irvington. Participating departments will have one or more officers serving on the Carjacking Task Force established in 2010 by the county Prosecutor’s Office and U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.
Fishman and Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura were among the officials participating in the awareness-initiative press conference, held in Newark on Aug. 19.
Murray’s office maintains a Special Prosecutions Unit focusing on carjacking. It reports that among the suspects indicted in recent weeks were two 19-year-olds from East Orange, one accused of a carjacking in Belleville in October 2012. The other, indicted on knowingly receiving a stolen 2006 Toyota Corolla, is also charged with fleeing when the Belleville police attempted to stop him.
In addition, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has been working with investigators and prosecutors at the federal, state and local levels “to select carjacking cases that are appropriate for federal prosecution.”
Fishman’s office cited the tough sentencing guidelines when a carjacking or attempted carjacking is prosecuted on the federal level: a maximum potential penalty of 15 years in prison; 25 years if serious bodily injury results; and life in prison or the federal death penalty if death results.
In Federal Court, using a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence carries a minimum consecutive term of five years in prison if a firearm is possessed, seven years if a firearm is brandished, 10 years if a firearm is discharged and a maximum of life in prison.
And, as Fishman emphasized, there is no parole in the federal system.
The billboards and placards will focus on the “hard time” the convicted carjacker faces. However, although Belleville is now part of the initiative, there are no current plans to place a billboard here, a spokesperson for Murray’s office told The Observer.
Belleville might take some comfort in that, since, we were advised, the billboards are being placed in the communities “with the highest number of carjackings”: Newark, Irvington and East Orange. A
uthorities also had words of caution for the potential carjacking victim. A statement issued in conjunction with the initiative’s launch noted: “These crimes [most often] occur in the early morning hours and late at night. Sometimes they involve high-end cars, but very often modestly priced vehicles are targeted.”
And Murray commented: “In addition to putting would-be criminals on notice, we want to alert the public to be cautious.
“Don’t leave the keys in your car even to run in and drop the baby off at the babysitter’s.
“Don’t leave your doors unlocked as you drive around.
“Be alert. Be smart.”