January 1, 2014
When a law enforcement officer visits a salvage motor vehicle dealer, there are usually two possible outcomes. Which one takes place is generally determined by your company’s approach to dealing with law enforcement. One outcome can be positive, ending with you satisfying law enforcement’s goals as well as your own goals; the other can end in the disastrous “perp walk.”
A positive outcome can be achieved by understanding that law enforcement investigators and vehicle recyclers have shared goals that often go unrecognized. As auto recyclers and members of the Automobile Recycler Association (ARA), industry goals are frequently in line with as law enforcement initiatives, and there are huge advantages to networking with law enforcement in order to achieve these shared goals.
On the whole, ARA members run legitimate businesses that are properly licensed, registered, and reporting to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NVMTIS). ARA members obtain vehicles with the proper title or ownership documents as required under their state’s laws. The unlicensed, non-complaint businesses try to fly under the radar to make larger profits by obtaining vehicles (some of which may be stolen) without the required documents, skirting state salvage title processes, failing to make the required NMVTIS notifications and taking other shortcuts. As a legitimate business operator, your goal is to eliminate competitors that break the law to obtain an unfair competitive advantage. Law enforcement’s goal is to protect the public, prevent fraud, and prosecute those who break the law. Though it may not seem the case at first glance, these goals go hand in hand.
In other words, ARA members can help to level the playing field and eliminate the unfair competitive advantage by helping law enforcement identify and prosecute these violators. Because vehicle recyclers and law enforcement have common goals, it is important to understand how to develop mutually beneficial relationships to support a partnership with law enforcement. Here are some things to consider:
• You can help educate law enforcement about salvage statutes and DMV policies.
Frequently, when a uniform ed officer or even a police investigator responds to your facility, it’s likely that they have had little or no training in salvage title laws. They may be handling this type of incident for the first time and you probably know more than they do about the statute or DMV procedure that led to the investigation. Historically, officers receive very little training on auto theft and essentially no training on other vehicle-related crimes, particularly the statutes relating to salvage vehicles and their title requirements. There is also a high turnover rate for personnel assigned to auto crimes units because they get transferred, promoted, reassigned due to budget cuts, or retire from the force. The key here is to tactfully and helpfully pass any information you have on to the officer or investigator. Even having copies of the state statutes or DMV procedures that apply to salvage vehicles available in your office may help and save them research time. At the end of the day they will appreciate your help.
• Inspections are a necessary part of doing business.
Law enforcement may visit your yard to conduct an inspection or search. They may be there with a search warrant as part of an on-going investigation, conducting an inspection required or allowed under state laws, or asking for consent to search your yard. A properly licensed company with a well-trained staff has little to be concerned about. If you follow your local and state regulations, obtain the proper title documents, identifying the buyers and sellers you do business with and make their required notifications to NMVTIS, you will be in good shape. Don’t get defensive right off the bat. Let the officer conduct his inspection or search, and be cooperative without interfering. Offer to show the officer around, provide requested vehicle documents. If necessary, lower vehicles from storage racks and then allow the investigators access to do their inspection without hovering or shadowing them. As a courtesy, ask the inspectors if it’s okay if your staff continues to operate as normal. This prevents any on-going activity such as crushing vehicles, moving vehicles around yard on forklifts, or letting vehicles be removed from the yard from being misinterpreted.
Keep in mind that inspections are a necessary part of doing business and you should use them to your advantage. This is an opportunity to get to know your local law enforcement personnel and open a networking door. Ask for the investigator’s contact information so that you can have a specific point of contact later, when someone is trying to sell you a suspicious vehicle or when you learn of an unlicensed facilities in your area. These inspections help keep the playing field level and act as a deterrent to keep the number of violators obtaining that unfair competitive advantage down, and keeping an open line of communication is helpful for everyone involved.
• Law enforcement needs your help. You may be their best witness.
Understand that in many instances, law enforcement is investigating a person or company that has sold, brokered, delivered, or purchased vehicles with your company. Sometimes they will be looking into an individual or group who purchased vehicles from your business and used them in connection with a fraud scheme. The individual under investigation may even be selling stolen vehicles or committing title fraud in order to sell you vehicles. It could be a person who bought vehicles from your lot and then removed the VIN plates to use on stolen vehicles.
The best way for law enforcement to successfully follow up on a suspicious vehicle or investigate a suspect is to obtain witness statements from someone on your staff and obtain the records relating to vehicle and suspect that were properly completed by your staff. Streamlining the process to get law enforcement the documentary evidence when they visit your yard goes a long way to helping them accomplish their goals and building a positive relationship.
• Be patient! Following up on volition information or leads takes time.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to law enforcement and report violators, but understand that investigations take time. Law enforcement has policies, procedures and regulations that they must follow when they investigate crimes. They will very likely need to do research to corroborate the information provided before taking enforcement action.
In many jurisdictions, law enforcement investigators in auto crimes units are understaffed, and the officers who are there are drowning in cases and other assignments unrelated to vehicles. Property crimes are often a lower priority for police management, and over the last several years, belt-tightening and budget cuts have resulted in auto theft units being reduced, or eliminated completely. The end result is that referrals and leads provided to law enforcement get prioritized, and are dealt with when time permits. The key is to be patient when you provide information to law enforcement. Don’t let delays in investigations discourage you from continuing to offer leads.
• Helping law enforcement fulfill training needs goes a long way.
Law enforcement, as well as local fire departments, frequently need salvage vehicles and space to train. Fire rescue units need to practice putting out vehicle fires and rescue workers need to practice extracting victims from accident vehicles. Many agencies require auto-related HAZMAT training. Salvage vehicles are ideal for many Law Enforcement training exercises including training for SWAT, firearms, K-9 searches, crime scene investigations, accident investigations and auto theft investigations. Law enforcement may need the use of salvage vehicles for crime reenactments or even sting operations involving those unlicensed facilities taking short cuts to obtain that unfair competitive advantage.
Offer to work with local law enforcement and fire departments by loaning them salvage vehicles or providing space to conduct training exercises. You will be providing a community service and helping to improve officer and investigator skills while developing the contacts and network you can use when law enforcement-related issues arise.
• Network through associations.
Membership in industry associations, like ARA, sends a strong message to law enforcement investigators. It demonstrates your involvement and shows that you are dedicated to improving your staff, company, and your industry. You can help build the law enforcement relationship by inviting law enforcement and DMV inspectors to attend your association meetings, or provide training at your conferences. Providing a venue for recyclers and law enforcement to ask questions of one another, or provide mutually beneficial education sessions will go a long way to help build positive law enforcement connections and industry – community good will.
Additionally, many auto theft investigator associations allow for persons or companies that share a common interest in combating vehicle theft and fraud to join or sponsor their associations. For example, some salvage recyclers that are members of the Florida Auto Dismantlers and Recyclers Association (FADRA) are also members of the investigators association, the Florida Auto Theft Intelligence Unit (FATIU). FADRA has hosted FATIU representatives who provided salvage title training during their annual conference. Several businesses in the salvage industry sponsor other investigator conferences nationally, such as the National Title and Odometer Fraud Association (NOTFEA) or the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI).
• Promote enforcement through funding assistance.
With budget cuts resulting in auto crime investigator positions being eliminated and a lack of dedicated funding to process auto crimes, there is an increasing need for creative funding solutions. There are several avenues you can take to help law enforcement in your area get extra funding to target violators. If you are in a state that has a Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Authority (MVTPA), you can support enforcement by working with that existing theft prevention authority to offer grants or other additional extra-budgetary options for salvage vehicle enforcement. If your state does not have a MVTPA, then you can work with law enforcement to try to establish one. Under many local and state laws, private donations to law enforcement may be allowed, as long as they are documented and meet certain restrictions. Donating funds towards specific enforcement activity helps law enforcement steer needed resources towards the real violators. Third, work with law enforcement to create a local ordinance or state law that provides direct funding for auto crimes enforcement. Lastly, support law enforcement efforts through your local associations that provide networking and training for auto crimes investigators.
The End Result
The end result of all of this is that you should take the positive approach, and know that your contacts with law enforcement will benefits you in the long run. A good relationship with your local investigators can help you work towards the goal of eliminating the unfair competitive advantages gained by businesses that are unlicensed, obtaining vehicles without the required documents, committing “Brand Avoidance” or “Title Washing” fraud, not making the required NMVTIS notifications, or are taking other shortcuts that are violations of law.
Make it your business goal to create alliances with important community partners and lay the groundwork for long-term relationships. You can find common ground to work towards achieving shared goals together. Now start building those relationships and networks!
Steve Levetan is the Executive Vice President of Pull-A-Part, LLC, a leading self-service used auto parts retailer/recycler, with 27 locations in 12 states (www.pullapart.com). Steve is active member of ARA with over 40 years of experience in the recycling industry, and has been a registered lobbyist representing the industry for over 30 years.
Les Cravens is currently Director of Law enforcement and Compliance Policy for Auto Data Direct, Inc. Cravens spent 31 years with the Miami-Dade Police Department. During his tenure with Miami-Dade PD he specialized in auto theft and other auto related investigations including vehicle title and registration fraud, salvage vehicle enforcement and salvage title fraud, export of stolen vehicles, cargo theft, VIN alteration, and odometer fraud. Cravens serves on the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrator’s – NMVTIS Law enforcement Work Group, the Florida Auto Theft Intelligence Unit – DMV Advisory & Legislative Committees, and is an instructor for the National White Collar Crime Center, the Miami-Dade Police Department and several organizations.
Working with Law Enforcement & First Responders
Several of our members at Auto and Truck Recyclers Association of New Hampshire have contacted their local area police departments offering to help identify auto parts which have been left at crime scenes. Usually these cases are hit and runs, but sometimes are theft related. By identifying the make, model and possibly year of the vehicle, it gives the authorities a better idea of what they are looking for. Several prosecutions have resulted from this effort. I believe ARA member and ATRA Director Jeff Kantor initiated this program.
As an association, I have distributed literature promoting the Theft Alert program to law enforcement and many members of the NH Legislature. We seem to constantly face legislation which is aimed at preventing or solving theft crime by adding reporting burdens to auto recyclers, scrap dealers, second hand shops, antique dealers as well as pawn shops. By promoting Theft Alert, we try to beat the drum for a program that is already in place, if only the police would use it. We have had some success in bringing some of these folks around to seeing our side.
I know many of our members have donated cars and school buses for training use by rescue squads and fire departments. The trainings are for using Jaws of Life and other extrication tools, as well as fire fighting. Doors have been donated to the NH Police Standards and Training Academy for the baby cops to practice shooting from behind a car door.
– Bruce Crawford, Administrative Director, ATRAofNH@gmail.com