Bill makes leaving car unlocked misdemeanor

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They fly through the streets, blowing red lights and stop signs - juveniles putting their lives, as well as yours, at risk all for a joy ride in a stolen car. 

It’s an issue that’s out of control in Pinellas County, and one local lawmaker wants to crack down.

In St. Petersburg, officials have seen an uptick in minors prowling the streets for cars to steal.

"The kids go out at night or sometimes at day and they just go through neighborhoods checking to see if the cars are unlocked,” St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway said.  “If the cars are unlocked, then they go inside and see if the keys are left inside."

He tells us about 70 percent of the time the keys are in the car, or the vehicle is left running.          

While the youths are the criminals, State Representative Wengay Newton says you could be the root of the problem.

"If we can get the percentage of these individuals leaving these keys in the car with the car running cut in half, you can reduce your auto thefts right now," he said.

This week, Newton proposed a bill, HB 927 -tweaking current state law to give it more teeth. 

Right now, law enforcement can write you a ticket for walking away while your keys are in the ignition. Newton wants to make it a misdemeanor crime if that happens and your ride is swiped by a minor.

"But for us creating this opportunity they wouldn't even have access to these cars, they're not taking them at gunpoint, they're not breaking in windows, they're not hot wiring em’," Newton said.

He calls it a commonsense bill.

However, not everyone agrees.

“As far as charging someone with a second-degree misdemeanor, now you're making a victim a criminal, so I don't like it," Holloway said.

He tells FOX 13 News charging an auto theft victim with a crime could breed a culture of mistrust between police and the public.  Holloway says citizens may not report a stolen car out of fear or might lie about the vehicle being left running.           

Newton sees it a different way, calling the charges a reason for more drivers to follow the rules already on the books.

"If they do that, there's no way they could be a victim of auto theft,” said Newton. “But that's the current law and that's not being done."   

If the proposed bill doesn't pass, Newton hopes it still starts a conversation and reminds folks to turn their cars off and take their keys with them.