Crime costs for victims of theft

It costs money to be a crime victim, and that's even after the criminals are finished with you..

Julie Spokus of Northeast Baltimore discovered this after someone broke into her shed two weeks ago and stole two scooters. Police arrested and charged a juvenile and recovered one of the motorized bikes.

She and her husband then learned a harsh reality about crime. It cost the couple $130 to get their scooter out of the city's impound lot on Pulaski Highway.

"Does Baltimore City really need to stick it to burglary victims?" Spokus wrote in a letter to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "Remember, my husband and I were the victims. We reported the crime yet we had to pay $130 to get our STOLEN property out of the impound lot. The City really needs to rethink this policy."

Unfortunately, virtually every jurisdiction in Maryland charges victims of stolen cars to retrieve their vehicles from impound lots. Most waive storage and administrative costs normally charged to ticketed and seized cars — which can make the total exceed $250 — but the fees for private towing companies remain.

"Charges for towing the vehicle must be paid by the owner, who may be able to file a claim with his insurance company for reimbursement," said Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman with Baltimore's Department of Transportation.

Barnes noted that the city waives storage fees for the first 48 hours after the car's owner is notified. She also stressed that "towing fees go directly to the tow company called to provide the service and not the City of Baltimore."

Sgt. Bob Jagoe, a supervisor in the Regional Auto Theft Task Force, said it would cost too much for local jurisdictions to tow recovered stolen cars for free. He said sometimes, especially in the city, police will sometimes leave the car on a district lot if the owner can quickly be found and can respond immediately.

The private towing fees vary in Baltimore County, depending on which company picks up your car. The cost could range from $100 to $200. In Anne Arundel County, a police spokesman said that officers "make every effort to contact the victim" before towing the vehicle.

This is one case where it doesn't seem to matter if you're victimized in the city or a suburb. Police Sgt. James Snow, who runs the Montgomery County impound lot, said the cost to victims can vary depending on when the car is recovered.

It's cheaper if your car is found in Montgomery County during daytime business hours — $91 for a tow to a police lot. At night, the charge jumps to $133. If the car has to be towed from the police lot to the impound lot, add another $61 to the bill.

None of this sits well with Spokus, who praised the city officer who responded to her initial call — he followed footprints and knew of other break-ins in the neighborhood — but she didn't think detectives followed up appropriately and failed to dust for fingerprints.

A better investigation, Spokus wrote in her letter to the mayor, might have led to more serious charges being filed against the juvenile — breaking and entering or burglary, in addition to motor vehicle theft.

She's also angry with what she described as a dismissive attitude by the worker at the impound lot. Not everyone whose vehicle is impounded is a scofflaw or a perpetrator of a crime; many, such as Spokus, are victims simply trying to get their property back.

The $130 it cost this couple to retrieve their stolen scooter only added insult to an already disturbing experience.

It doesn't make it any easier to note that auto theft is steadily declining both in Maryland and in Baltimore City. The state reports a decrease from 25,340 cases in 2008 to 19,619 last year, the lowest since 1984.

In the city over that time period, the numbers dropped from 5,518 to 4,632. And the numbers in Baltimore continue to drop this year. City police report that through August, 2,850 vehicles were reported stolen, down from 3,035 at during the same time period last year.

And while an arrest and recovery of a stolen vehicle might be satisfying to police, for the owners and their insurance company, being a victim of this crime still costs money.

But Jagoe did note that most auto thefts are preventable. In the overwhelming majority, the sergeant said, victims have their cars stolen because they leave their keys in the ignition.

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