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Criminal Resource Manual

1359. Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Statutes -- General Overview

Beginning with enactment of the Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act, Pub.L. No. 98-547, 98 Stat. 2754 (1984) (1984 Act), Congress began to respond to the growing professionalism of motor vehicle theft during the prior two decades. The primary thrust of this legislation is directed at professional "chop shops" which cause the theft of motor vehicles in order to obtain replacement parts for other vehicles damaged in accidents. As these "crash" parts (i.e., fenders, doors, hoods, etc.) were not required to be marked with identification numbers, they were nearly impossible to identify as stolen once separated from the stolen vehicle.

The 1984 Act gave the Secretary of Transportation authority to prescribe by regulation a "vehicle theft prevention standard" which would require that manufacturers and importers of new passenger car models that are frequent theft targets ("high theft lines") mark the major components of such vehicles with an identification number in order to help prevent their theft for "chop shop" operations. The Secretary of Transportation was also authorized to issue a voluntary component identification standard for "low theft" passenger car lines and all other "road" motor vehicles (i.e., trucks, vans, motorcycles, etc.). The Secretary of Transportation was not given any authority over "off-highway" mobile equipment (i.e., bulldozers, farm tractors, etc.) by the 1984 Act.

The Anti Car Theft Act of 1992, Pub.L. No. 102-519, 106 Stat. 3397 (1992) (1992 Act) expanded the Secretary's motor vehicle parts marking authority. The 1992 Act required that within two years of the date of enactment (October 25, 1992), the Secretary shall promulgate a vehicle theft standard pertaining to the covered major parts which are installed by all foreign and domestic manufacturers into passenger motor vehicles (other than light duty trucks) in not to exceed one-half of the lines not designated as high theft lines. As a result of the revision of Title 49 United States Code, Pub.L. 103-272, (1994) the theft prevention (parts marking) provisions are now codified Chapter 331 of Title 49. The implementing regulations are set forth in 49 C.F.R. Part 541.

The 1984 Act also amended Title 18 to provide for criminal penalties for altering or removing motor vehicle identification numbers (18 U.S.C. §  511); seizure and forfeiture of vehicles or components with falsified or removed identification numbers (18 U.S.C. § 512); trafficking in road motor vehicles or their components which have removed or falsified identification numbers (18 U.S.C. § 2321); importing or exporting any of a wide variety of motor vehicles, vessels, or aircraft that have been stolen or that have had their identification numbers falsified or removed (18 U.S.C. § 553). In addition, the 1984 Act authorizes the Customs Service to establish a regulation requiring that the exporter of a used motor vehicle, or used off-highway mobile equipment, submit to the Customs Service before exportation a document evidencing his ownership and containing the identification number of the vehicle or equipment (19 U.S.C. § 1627a).

The 1992 Act created a new offense which makes it a federal crime to own, operate, maintain, or control a "chop shop." (18 U.S.C. § 2322). Finally, the Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Act (42 U.S.C. § 14171) which was enacted as Title XXII of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, requires the Attorney General to develop, in cooperation with the States, a national voluntary motor vehicle theft prevention program wherein a motor vehicle owner may sign a consent form authorizing law enforcement officers to stop his motor vehicle if it is being operated under specified conditions. Participating motorists must display a program decal on their vehicles. An unauthorized application of a program decal on a vehicle is punishable by a fine not to exceed $1000 (18 U.S.C. § 511(a)).

[cited in Criminal Resource Manual 1303; USAM 9-61.700]