Nearly 100 obviously stolen cars are just sitting in plain sight collecting tickets in San Francisco right now, and could be recovered today, but the SFMTA and police department are simply not sharing information with each other.
Street sweeping tickets and parking tickets are unfortunate components of car ownership in San Francisco. An even more unfortunate component of car ownership is getting your car stolen. And apparently, there is a nexus between the two. A just-published Chronicle investigation finds that SFMTA is frequently ticketing stolen cars, which are often abandoned after being used for joyrides and various crimes, and not checking with SFPD on whether the cars are stolen.
Y'all, a thread. (Do we still do that on this hellsite?)— St. John Barned-Smith ⚔️ (@stjbs) October 11, 2023
Weeks ago, we got a tip. A reader's car was stolen. When SFMTA parking attendants found it, they ticketed it. This is common in SF. In fact, we found that from May-Sept, it happened 400+ times. https://t.co/YhkLPeZaTm
As an investigative bonus, the Chronicle also has a companion database of reported stolen cars that have parking tickets. Per that database, there are 97 clearly stolen cars just sitting there collecting tickets right now. And if the SFMTA checked the license plate to see if the car is stolen, they could recover someone’s stolen car right then and there. But they don’t!
NEW:— Demian Bulwa (@demianbulwa) October 11, 2023
Was your car stolen in San Francisco? Based on the parking tickets it’s received, we may be able to locate it for you.
Startling new data tool from @susieneilson and @namisumida https://t.co/aiePY9HFYg
These are the current numbers, but the broader picture is more maddening. Per the Chronicle’s investigation, between May 1 and September 17 of this year, more than 2,000 cars were reported stolen to SFPD. Of those, 411 were issued tickets by SFMTA after the theft. That means that around 20% of those stolen cars could have been just instantly recovered.
“The concept that you need to rely on self-help to find your stolen car is nuts,” car theft (and subsequent ticket) victim Susan Kostal told the Chronicle. “Neither SFPD nor SFMTA seems concerned about finding cars and closing these cases. It’s pretty clear it’s a low priority for both agencies.”
In fairness, data shows that the SFPD recovers 83% of stolen cars in the city, which is a good percentage. But some victims still have infuriating experiences that could be resolved more quickly.
Consider the example of one West Portal resident whose car was stolen, and she discovered where it was by checking the SFMTA database of transit tickets. Sure enough, it was still abandoned in the Fillmore where it had received a ticket. Her husband drove to the car, but police told him not to touch it until they arrived. They didn’t arrive for a couple hours, so he got in and drove it to a nearby police station. And he found it full of stolen merchandise, stolen credit cards, and ripped-off auto parts.
It looked like “a chop shop was set up inside my car,” that theft victim told the Chronicle.
What’s perhaps most frustrating about this is that the SFMTA did used to check whether the cars were stolen, A 2007 Matier and Ross article described “hand-held ticket devices (that) store auto theft information only from San Francisco's database — not the entire state.” But SFMTA no longer has access to law enforcement databases.
“We have no specific policy regarding checking vehicles to see if they are stolen during the normal course of duties,” SFMTA spokesperson Stephen Chun said to the Chron.
The investigative piece describes a new-ish program in San Diego that does allow parking ticket agents to check a state database of stolen cars, though those agents are required to have more rigorous background checks to access that data. It seems San Francisco could take a lesson from that. But for the time being, there are about 100 stolen cars that could easily be returned to their owners today, but won't be.
And, to add insult to injury, those owners may be on the hook for tickets piling up on them.
Image: @PearsonTriton via Twitter