NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Kids stealing cars has become a big problem in our communities, and it's not just because so many people are foolishly getting out of their vehicles and leaving the keys inside.
An exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation of Tennessee's broken juvenile justice system also discovered that, for kids, auto theft is not always considered a serious crime.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates was on patrol with Nashville's juvenile crime task force as they tracked a teen in a stolen car on the streets and by air.
And when officers finally had the vehicle cornered in heavy traffic, our cameras were there as police flooded the area, taking the 17-year-old suspect into custody.
"So this is what we've been talking about the entire time," said Metro police Lt. Blaine Whited, who heads the task force.
"Things we're seeing here every single week: 17 year old in a stolen car. Again, a stolen car that was easily accessed because the driver operator left the keys accessible to him. A very nice vehicle, an Audi, a very expensive vehicle. Now, he's out cruising the streets of Nashville."
Inside the car, officers found a black ski mask.
In fact, the number of kids charged with auto theft has dramatically skyrocketed in the last five years, and police say repeat offenders are a big part of the problem.
Our investigation discovered the teenager, whose name we don't know, was first arrested for auto theft in July 2018 when he was 16.
That charge was retired six months later, effectively giving him a second chance.
His second arrest in July of this year: auto theft, assault of an officer, evading arrest and resisting arrest.
He was taken to juvenile detention and released after just over two hours.
While awaiting a hearing on those charges, he got his third arrest.
This time, he was released after just three hours.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Whited, "And then he's back out on the streets again."
"Yeah, absolutely," the lieutenant answered, "he's back out on the streets."
"We know whatever parent or guardian had him to begin with had failed in their supervisory duties because he was out there in stolen car riding through North Nashville. What's going to stop him again if he's released to that same parent or guardian? It didn't work the first time, what's changed the second time?"
And the consequences can be devastating.
Our cameras were there as the task force pulled up on a crash where a stolen car slammed into the side of another vehicle.
The accused car thief in that case was a young adult.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Officer Brandon Tennant, "This is what happens when people steal cars?"
"Absolutely," Tennant said. "And this car -- the suspect car - had just gotten stolen. It's not even reported stolen yet. I don't think the owner even knew it was stolen until we contacted her."
In fact, such scenes - where out-of-control teens crash in stolen cars - have become commonplace.
Last year, 24-year-old Corey Joseph Taylor was killed when a carjacking suspect crashed into him on a downtown sidewalk.
Data obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates helped us piece together a profile of the driver, 17-year-old Nafarious Howard.
That data indicates that Howard was first arrested for stealing a car when he was just 14.
He was granted pre-trial diversion.
At 15, he was arrested for robbery.
He pleaded guilty to theft and was released on supervised probation.
At 16, he was arrested for joyriding in another stolen car and again placed on probation.
At 17, Howard was charged with the carjacking and the homicide.
He's now been transferred to the adult system.
"Auto theft is one of those crimes that you cannot detain a child on," said former juvenile prosecutor Jim Todd. "Three in the morning, with crack cocaine in his pocket, 13 year old driving a stolen car, got to take him to detention. Detention is going to call mom and say come get him."
Todd said that, the way state law is written, first-time auto thieves must be immediately sent home because auto theft is consider a non-violent property crime.
Which, he argued, doesn't teach kids that there are consequences.
"A magistrate down in Davidson County Juvenile Court or Hardeman County Juvenile Court who sees a kid at three in the morning in a stolen car with crack cocaine needs to at least have the ability to say, 'You know what, I'm going to hold this kid until I can figure out what's going on at home.'"
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NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Juvenile Court Administrator Kathy Sinback if it was true that "the law draws no distinction between stealing a candy bar and stealing a car?"
"That's absolutely true," Sinback answered.
We pressed, "You cannot detain a child for stealing a candy bar and you can't detain a child for stealing a car on the first offense?"
"Under juvenile law," she said, "they are treated the same in terms of not being able to detain them."
Does that make any sense?
"It does not make sense at this point."
Even when a kid repeatedly steals cars, Sinback said that's not enough for the Department of Children's Services to justify locking that child up in a secure facility.
"Vehicle theft even though we know now it is a very violent, can be a violent crime, they are not able to hold those kids in secure facilities either."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So auto theft does not count when DCS looks at them?"
"Correct," Sinback said.
"Auto theft is not under any law, adult and juvenile, considered a crime against a person, a personal crime, or a crime of violence against a person."
State law does give Juvenile Court officials the ability to detain a car thief if the offender was out on probation or out on bond awaiting trial for another auto offense.
But our exclusive investigation discovered that hasn't always been done.
We uncovered a record involving an unidentified teenager, arrested May 4, 2016, for auto theft.
Three days later, he was arrested for joyriding in a stolen car.
He was arrested again on Nov. 7th and Jan. 5th.
He would be implicated in car thefts on Feb. 26th, March 1st, March 7th and April 1st.
On April 19th, he was again arrested.
Every time, he was released back to the Department of Children's Services.
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"We assume when we put a child's in state's custody that they are going to be getting all those services and then they won't be committing crimes," Sinback explained.
And if they get into trouble, you expect DCS "to do something."
In the case of the 17 year old in the stolen Audi, court officials say they discovered that a screening tool they were using to determine whether to detain offenders did not take such situations into consideration.
"What we realized is that we needed to be able to detain those kids and we need to catch those every time that they come in," Sinback said.
Now, every time a repeat car theft offender is brought in, a juvenile court magistrate will decide whether that kid should be held for a full-blown detention hearing.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Is this an area where, in hindsight, you think the Court could have done better?"
"Absolutely," she responded, "I think the court can always continue to do better."
"Even in our probation supervision, when we work with children who have repeat auto thefts, we need to be able to see that this is symptomatic of something that really needs more attention."
This time, police say they were fortunate that the teenager on this night did not do something really tragic.
"Instead of trying to ram other cars, driving over curbs and sidewalks and through buildings and everything else, he made the decision to abandon that vehicle and try to just escape on foot," Lt. Whited said.
"So while he was making bad decisions, he could have been making even worse decisions."