Fresno County "Catch and Release" Car Thief Roundup

FRESNO, Calif.

Almost 20 suspects were arrested Thursday, and then taken straight to the jailhouse courtroom. After seeing a judge, almost all of them were released. But just having been in court could really get them in trouble.

A big group of suspected car thieves took a long walk wearing handcuffs Thursday, but they weren't headed to the Fresno county jail. Most of these suspects have already been there and got out early, before prosecutors could get them in court. But not this time.

"Call the matter of Manuel Jimenez Hernandez," said Judge Jonathan Conklin from the bench of the jailhouse courtroom.

When Hernandez and about 15 other suspects got picked up by police this time, they went straight to a special court. Like most of the defendants, Hernandez entered a plea of "not guilty", then got set free -- which might seem counter-productive.

More than 2,000 cars have been stolen in Fresno already this year. That's up 58% from last year. And police believe many of these suspects are pushing that increase. They've been caught before, then released for overcrowding at the jail, then arrested again for new auto thefts. But if they make it to an arraignment -- their first court appearance -- and they enter a plea, the punishment for a new crime goes up by two years in state prison. That's where Thursday's roundup comes into play.

"They have to be arraigned," said Fresno County district attorney Elizabeth Egan. "If they're released on overcrowding with a citation, they haven't been arraigned, so the two-year bump will not be effective."

The "catch and release" operation is a first-of-its-kind in Fresno County. Sheriff Margaret Mims called it a new way of doing business in tough times.

"The message to the criminals out there is we can't do business the way we used to, but we'll adjust and we'll adapt to make sure we hold you accountable," she said.

Auto theft convictions usually lead to three-year prison sentences, but these suspects could go away for five years if they're caught after appearing in court.

The judge told them Thursday they can't drive any car whatsoever, unless it's registered to them.

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