The search for a stolen vehicle at a Midvale home Friday led state investigators not only to the missing flatbed truck but to 35 pounds of marijuana plants flourishing in the yard.
The 14 or so plants were 4 1/2-feet to 5 1/2-feet high and about 4 feet wide, said Lt. Tim Fletcher of the Utah State Tax Commission's Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division (MVED). Some of the plants had already been harvested by having their buds removed. Investigators served a warrant at the home, 7378 S. 1000 East, about 10:30 a.m. Friday, after tips led them to believe the resident there was dismantling cars — most likely stolen ones — on the property without a license.
The find will likely net the homeowner, whom Fletcher said was away on a weekend trip, with a handful of felony and misdemeanor charges.
Investigators say turning up drugs or other illegal activities is a regular part of the stolen vehicle recovery business. During a similar operation last week, MVED investigators found some 53 balloons of heroin in addition to the sought-after stolen goods. Sometimes they uncover methamphetamine labs and larger auto theft rings, or chop shops, where the stolen cars are dismantled and the parts sold.
"Almost every single time we find evidence of narcotics, drug distribution, counterfeits of title, temporary permits or drivers' licenses," said Kip Ingersoll, MVED's deputy director. "It's quite common."
So common, in fact, that earlier this week Ingersoll and division director Kent Jorgensen approached the Legislature's Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee with a bill proposal that would create the Utah Automobile Crime Prevention Authority, which would add $1 to vehicle registration fees and use that money to help state and local police increase motor vehicle theft investigations and prevention programs.
Raising registration fees by $1 would generate about $2.8 million in funds, Jorgensen projects. Under the bill, the Utah Department of Public Safety would house the authority and distribute funds.
Vehicle theft recovery and arrest rates are going down while the number of thefts has consistently risen. Last year some 6,695 cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and other vehicles worth more than $34 million were stolen from Utahns; only about half of those were recovered and only 968 — or 14 percent — of the cases resulted in arrests.
The statistics for 2001 show 6,073 thefts with arrests in 18 percent of cases. In 2000 there were 5,640 recorded thefts with arrests in 20 percent of cases. Jorgensen attributed the trend to the loss of officers and investigators to the war in Iraq, as well as some agencies dedicating resources to other areas.
"It's a shift in priorities that's causing the rates to go down," he said.
High vehicle theft rates affect Utah consumers, who face higher auto insurance rates. States that have focused on the problem and reduced their theft rates have seen reductions in insurance rates, Jorgensen said.
While legislative committee members expressed some hesitation about the proposal, they didn't shut the door on further discussion. Some members of the committee were reluctant to raise registration fees while others wondered about funding local police investigations with state monies and the appropriateness of having the Department of Public Safety hold those purse strings as opposed to the Tax Commission or another agency.
"What is the advantage to doing this versus just saying to our DPS, here's some additional funds, put some people on this?" asked Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley.
Jorgensen said the division isn't locked into a particular formula for the authority but he believes committing to addressing the motor vehicle theft program is worth the time, energy and fee increases.
"If you focus on the problem you can get some good results," he said. "I guarantee you that if you focus on this type of crime, you'll be solving other crimes."