February 16, 2020

House passes ‘chop shop’ bill

Matthew Reichbach

The state House passed a bill Saturday to create tougher penalties for illegal New Mexico “chop shops” that dismantle stolen vehicles to sell for parts.

The lower chamber passed House Bill 156 in a 62-2 vote, which would create a new crime specifically for “chop shops” that knowingly cut up stolen vehicles to sell on the illegal market.

Rep. Abbas Akhil, D-Albuquerque, one of the primary bill sponsors, said he got together with other lawmakers after concern from his constituents with extremely high auto theft rates. National Insurance Crime Bureau data released last year showed that Albuquerque led the nation in car theft rates in 2018.

The problem is especially acute for those who live in apartments and leave their cars idling to warm up during the winter months, Akhil said. “[They] run upstairs to grab a lunch box or something and by the time they come back down the car is gone.”

Akhil said law enforcement believes that organized crime rings are likely operating such chop shops in New Mexico and selling the parts illegally within the state.

“What we’re trying to do is go to the head and find the king pins who are operating this,” he said.

Akhil argued on the House floor that the legislation is necessary to create penalties specifically for chop shops because the current law pertains only to theft in general. The bill defines a chop shop as a facility where stolen motor vehicles or their parts are possessed, received, stored or altered.

The bill makes it a third-degree felony, punishable by up to three years of imprisonment or a $5,000 fine, if the governor signs the legislation. It will now be assigned to a Senate committee for consideration.

A fiscal analysis of the bill says it could potentially increase the amount of public spending on indigent defense. A midlevel public defender in Albuquerque makes $102,200 a year, and the Legislative Finance Committee in its fiscal year 2021 budget recommendations suggested $900,000 for new attorneys, which would allow the agency to hire about 8.5 additional public defenders.

“It is unknown if this is a sufficient number of attorneys to absorb the possible increased workload,” the fiscal analysis said.

It’s possible the $5,000 fine could bring in additional money for the state, the analysis said. There is no data available estimating the number of chop shops in the state, or how many violations might result in prison time rather than fines.

As of 2014, 15 other states including Colorado and the federal government have statutes outlawing “chop shops,” according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.