Our Opinion: Making laws and the law of unintended consequences

Lawmaking has been known to collide with the law of unintended consequences.

A law intended to aid removal of a rural eyesore — specifically, junk cars — is being criticized for encouraging car thieves to steal them for scrap.

Legislation that became effective in August 2012 legalized the sale of nonfunctioning vehicles 10 years or older without a title. The law, sponsored by then-state Sen. Kevin Engler reduced the previous 20-year limit.

Engler, now a Republican state representative from Farmington, said the change was intended to help rural landowners get rid of junk vehicles abandoned on their property.

But Sgt. Tom Naughton, head of the St. Louis County police auto theft unit, blames the law for an increase in the theft of older autos to be sold as 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.”

St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch added: “This law clearly had unintended consequences and we have to look at changing it back or finding some other solution to the matter.”

Engler believes the solution is less blame and more enforcement. “I guess they’ve got to blame it on something,” he said. “They need to tighten up enforcement of the law and they’ll be fine.”

Unintended consequences are not without precedent in the lawmaking process.

Jefferson City now is coping with the consequences of election law changes.

A change prohibited our city from conducting primary elections in February, unless February was specified in the City Charter. It was not.

As a consequence, the city has moved a primary election (a primary is needed in the First Ward, where three candidates have filed) to March. That move, however, created added consequences — deadlines and ballot printing — for the Cole County clerk.

The legislative process — which includes 163 representatives, 34 senators and hundreds of lobbyists representing a wide range of interests — is designed so proposals will be scrutinized and refined to foresee potential problems.

The process works well most of the time, but not always.

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