The revised law, which took effect in August, made it legal to sell nonfunctioning vehicles 10 years or older without a title. Before, only vehicles 20 years or older could be sold for scrap without a title.
Sgt. Tom Naughton, head of the St. Louis County police auto theft unit, said thieves can get $200 to $500 per car at a time when other laws made it harder to sell stolen metals like wire or gutters for scrap.
“There's big money in this,” he said. “You can't make it harder to recycle other things and then make it easier to scrap a car. So now the copper thief is stealing cars, because it's easier and they can make more money.”
Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who proposed the change, said it was intended to help rural landowners get rid of junk vehicles abandoned on their property.
“There are a lot bigger problems than over-10-year-old car thefts in the metro St. Louis area and Kansas City area, and I would have the police concentrate on some of those problems,” Engler said. “But I guess they've got to blame it on something ... They need to tighten up enforcement of the law and they'll be fine."
Police note the increase in older auto thefts could cause an increase in insurance premiums, which are based partly on rates of auto theft and recoveries.
St. Louis County has recorded a 37 percent increase in the thefts of older-model cars since the law took effect, compared with the same period the previous year, according to police data. The department is recovering fewer than half, down about 10 percent, while it recovers about 70 percent of newer models, the data shows.