By Erin Achenbach
Local and state officials hope to crack down on carjacking by making it a separate crime under Missouri statute, an initiative announced just as a brazen series of carjackings hit the south county area.
Attorney General Eric Schmitt held a press conference last week to announce the new state legislation, joined by the bill’s co-sponsors in the Missouri House and Senate — Rep. David Gregory, R-Sunset Hills, and Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis.
Under current Missouri law, there is no formal, uniform charge for carjacking, which makes it tougher to prosecute, tougher to track and provides no uniformity in sentencing for similar crimes, the three officials said.
The statute proposed by Schmitt, Gregory and Onder would allow prosecutors to charge carjackings with a new category of crime, “motor vehicle hijacking,” rather than a broader robbery or lesser stealing charge.
Incidents can currently be charged a variety of different ways, such as first-degree robbery, a class A felony; second-degree robbery, a class B felony; or stealing, a class D felony.
Missouri is one of 27 states without a specific carjacking statute. If the legislation passes, Missouri would join nearby states such as Illinois, Indiana and Tennessee that have carjacking charges with felony penalties on the books.
“The bottom line is this: If you attempt to commit a carjacking with a gun or you commit a carjacking with a gun, you will go to jail for 10 years to life,” Schmitt said. “This is about removing the worst offenders from our streets.”
With the proposed legislation, the minimum classification for carjacking would be a class B felony with five years in prison. But any use of a deadly weapon or dangerous instruments, or robbing a special victim, such as women, children or the elderly, would promote the offense to a class A felony that would carry a minimum 10-year sentence. Armed criminal action would be charged in conjunction with the statute if a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument was used.
There were over 300 carjackings in the metropolitan St. Louis area in 2018, according to data obtained from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
“Right now, if you’re hijacked in the state of Missouri, we can’t charge the perpetrator with hijacking. We can’t do it. We have to try and stuff it under some sort of robbery or stealing charge and that’s a real problem,” said Gregory. “Right now, if somebody comes up to you and hijacks you and says they’re going to kill you without brandishing some sort of firearm, they could be out (of jail) the next week, they could be out in a week.”
The press conference came just days after a series of armed carjackings in south county, including one in broad daylight at the Butler Hill Schnucks in which a victim loading his groceries had his own gun and fired back at the man stealing his car.
“As violent thugs are no longer able to hotwire cars in order to steal them, they are now resorting to brutal violence to commit their crimes,” said Onder. “I’m honored to be asked by Attorney General Schmitt and Rep. Gregory to help fight this epidemic of horrific crime.”
House Bill 966, sponsored by Gregory to create the offense of vehicle hijacking, had a Judiciary Committee hearing scheduled Tuesday — after the Call went to press.
Onder first read in the upper chamber the equivalent Senate Bill 433 on Feb. 25.
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell, who campaigned on a platform of criminal justice reform and who received some criticism after an internal policy leak about how his office plans to prosecute certain offenses, said in a statement, “We welcome any attempt to make St. Louis County more safe through legislation, particularly with respect to violent crimes like ‘carjackings’ and we look forward to reviewing the proposed legislation.”