St. Petersburg is ground zero for juvenile auto thefts in Florida

St. Petersburg, Florida has long been at the center of Pinellas County’s teen auto theft epidemic. But data shows the city has also been ground zero for the state over the past five years in this regard, which is illustrated in our interactive dashboard – Florida Juvenile Auto Theft Arrests by City — that provides arrest data by city.

Since FY 2013-14, St. Petersburg has ranked first in the state for number of juvenile auto theft arrests three times, another year ranking second, and the other ranking fifth. And, in the total five-year period, St. Petersburg along with Orlando rank the highest of all Florida cities with more than 900 arrests each, or approximately 3.5 a week.

Additionally and most importantly, over the past three years there have been 12 deaths in the county due to the teen auto theft epidemic – most of them in St. Petersburg. That’s right: St. Petersburg has an annual death toll from this problem.

Don’t confuse adult auto theft statistics with juvenile auto thefts

There have been recent news media reports, as well as social media posts by elected officials, that address the topic of auto thefts in Pinellas without separating adult arrests from juvenile arrests. This can be confusing when discussing and making decisions regarding the county’s teen auto theft epidemic.

For instance, a recent Tampa Bay Times article cites 1,523 auto thefts in 2015, which fell to 746 in 2018. While the specific source of the data was not provided, I’m going to presume the numbers mostly consist of adults stealing cars, because the data on juvenile auto theft arrests for those years in St. Petersburg are 220 in FY 2015-16 and 110 in FY 2017-18, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

Children joyriding is dramatically different and more dangerous than adults stealing cars

It’s vital that the issue of adult auto theft arrests not be confused with the teen auto theft epidemic. Adult auto theft is dramatically different than juvenile auto theft for two key reasons: Motive and public safety.

First, the motive is different. Adults usually steal cars to make money by selling the car or its parts. Children steal cars to drive at high speeds followed by ditching the stolen vehicle. This known as joyriding: “The action or practice of driving fast and dangerously in a stolen car for enjoyment.” These drivers or “joyriders” require extended driving courses from the likes of this Florida traffic school – My Improv and similar facilities before they are then allowed to drive a car in the future and will be faced with high fines and community service or jail time.

Second, the public safety threat from children joyriding is much higher. Consider kids ages 14 and 15 — who don’t yet have a driver’s license and may have difficulty seeing over the dashboard — stealing cars and driving at 100 mph or faster with little regard for harming anyone or getting caught by the cops. Compare this to adults stealing a car and trying to attract as little attention as possible so as not to get caught. The former has resulted in multiple deaths, while the latter is more of a property crime.

Also, it’s important to note that Pinellas law enforcement views adult auto theft as different from the teen auto theft epidemic. For example, the Habitual Offender Monitoring Enforcement Program – a $1.6 million, multi-agency effort led by the Sheriff’s Office that includes the participation of the St. Petersburg Police Department to address the rise in auto thefts — is for juveniles only. The HOME effort has never included adults who have been arrested for auto theft. In fact, adult auto theft was not even a consideration in designing the program. To protect vehicles from theft, it may be worth contacting your local security company as they can assess how secure your property or business car park is and make recommendations to protect it from both adult and juvenile thieves.

Don’t think that because the number of adults stealing cars may be down that we have solved the problem of kids stealing cars and joyriding. These are two different issues, and the dangerous joyriding trend continues strong, which is why a wide range of government and community leaders are talking about the need for new ways to address the problem.

The Institute’s study on Pinellas County’s teen auto theft epidemic

The Institute has been studying the teen auto theft epidemic – which has included gathering the nation’s best thinking on the cause of the problem and potential solutions — and is releasing the final report in September.

The research gathered input from more than 100 people ranging from national and state experts to local law enforcement and judges to youth and families involved in the epidemic. The study is independent and nonpartisan. For more information, visit

2019-08-19T19:04:35-04:00 Thursday, August 15, 2019|