Little-known AZ law forces police to become 'repo men'Posted: Updated:
It is a law police don't want to enforce, prosecutors don't even charge, and it puts money directly into the pockets of the high-profile politician who got it passed.
No matter the circumstances, if a person in Arizona is 90 days late on a car payment, their car can be listed as stolen and they become a felon.
One doesn't have to go back very far to remember the crash of the housing market.
Overnight, it seemed homes on every block were in foreclosure as people worked with their banks to keep a roof over their heads their car in the driveway.
Mortgage brokers don't immediately rip you out of your homes when you're down on your luck, but in Arizona, when it comes to your car, that's exactly what happens, many times while staring down the barrel of a police officer's gun.
"A felony stop, safety is always first, so they are going to treat that like every other stolen vehicle," said Phoenix police Sgt. Jay Kalmbach.
He said he has no choice but to enforce criminal code 13-1813, a law that lists your car as stolen and labels you a felon if you are 90 days late on your car payment.
"Most times it's people who have lost their jobs, things that have happened to them in this economy, they've gotten behind, and not really the intent there to try to defraud," Kalmbach said.
But CBS 5 News learned the officer who pulls you over doesn't necessarily know that.
Police computers simply indicate a stolen car, and that automatically means the officers call for back-up, when at least three other cars and a helicopter rush to the scene.
Officers must treat you like a potentially hostile criminal.
"Every stop that we make, there is potential risk for problems, something bad could happen."
"We're not a game show, but we were giving cars away for free," said David Kaufman, the president of Phoenix Corvette Center, who regularly turns in overdue car owners to the police.
Kaufman said he sees little difference between cars that are hot-wired off the street and someone who stopped sending in their payment.
"Do I think that person should be held accountable and prosecuted the same way a shoplifter would? Yeah, I do. I don't see anything wrong with that," Kaufman said.
Police in Arizona are essentially doing the job of the traditional repo-man.
But with this law, Kaufman and other dealers don't have to pay repossession prices, at least $400 a pop for each seized car.
Instead, police assume the risk and taxpayers foot the bill.
The driving force behind the law is former Arizona House Speaker Jim Weiers, who also happens to be the president of BHFC Financial Services, a car loan company.
He directly benefits financially from the law he pushed through.
He declined to go on camera, but told CBS 5 News he doesn't see a conflict.
"If you pass legislation that lowers taxes, you personally would benefit," Weiers said. "Or if you reduced class sizes, your children are going to benefit. Lots of people have benefited from this bill."
Lots of people in the car business, maybe, but the reality on the street is that these drivers always have their cars taken, but are rarely ever prosecuted.
"In the majority of those cases that are submitted to us, we can't charge because we don't have all of the information available," said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.
That frustrates Kaufman, who said he thinks more delinquent owners should be charged and fined.
"Theft is theft," Kaufmann said.
But with 20 of these cases submitted per month just in Phoenix, and only 14 already busy detectives in the auto theft unit, Kalmbach says that just won't work.
"I'd rather see my detectives going on the bigger cases," Kalmbach said. "It's just unnecessary risk."
A person's car is not only listed as stolen in Arizona, under this law, but if the car's owner travels out of state, police officers there will see them designated as a felon.
Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.