Deputies and VINs

Mar 30, 2014 By Steve Peck, Publisher

Why does a deputy have to do this menial task?

The Fremont County Sheriff's Office spends a lot of man hours checking vehicle identification numbers.

We have a police scanner at the newspaper office, and casual observation of the "squawk box" would lead any listener to conclude that the VIN inspections happen a lot. But reporter Eric Blom's story on the sheriff's year-end statistical summary put it into specific terms. Nearly one-third of the department's annual service call list is consumed by this necessary but largely menial task.

With budgets anything but loose, and with Sheriff Skip Hornecker's deputies making more calls each year -- many of them more complex and time-consuming than ever -- the question of the efficacy of sheriff's deputies checking vehicle identifications comes into question.

VIN checks are necessary to protect against automobile theft and fraud, and they are required by state law. No one argues that point. The same state statute requires that a sworn law enforcement officer perform the VIN inspection. Is that second element really necessary? Might there be a better use for a trained deputy's time and skills than checking the inside front door of a car and writing down a VIN number?

Civil society has come up with specialists for other required legal-but-clerical tasks in matters of both commerce and law. The notary public comes to mind, as does the process server. People filling these positions are carrying out legally required tasks that once required a judge or law officer.

Could a similar position be explored for VIN checks? Could state law be redrawn so that a qualified, trained, licensed, trustworthy, accountable person could perform VIN inspection and verification without having to have a law badge?

In his annual report, Hornecker noted that his department is dealing with the nearly 3,000 annual VIN requests it must handle each year by dedicating a single deputy largely to that job. Although we do not doubt the dedication and professionalism of the deputy who spends much of his or her work shift on VIN checks, chances are it wasn't what that person signed on for when training for a career in law enforcement.

Our system of justice, both law enforcement and the courts, relies on accurate vehicle inspection numbers. But it does seem that a process to collect and verify such data could be devised so that our trained peace officers could spend more of their taxpayer-supported time catching crooks and preventing crime of the type that requires a sheriff's deputy, and less time on the duty that requires someone with a pen and paper or an iPad.

Legislators, how about looking into this? Our peace officers could be put to better use.

-- Steven R. Peck

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