Martell D. Jackson is the poster child for cases prosecuted by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office auto theft team.

He’s been convicted a half-dozen times for theft. Last year Jackson was driving a stolen 1998 Toyota Camry the wrong way down a street in Maple Grove when he was pulled over by police. He admitted that he and a friend used to steal cars together and that maybe his friend had stolen the Camry. Jackson was convicted and is now serving 18 months at St. Cloud prison.

Last week, Hennepin County’s attorney and sheriff’s offices received a $550,000, two-year grant from the state Department of Commerce for enhanced auto theft investigation and prosecution efforts.

The County Attorney’s Office is using the money to fund nearly three dedicated staff positions, and the Sheriff’s Office will use its share for three automated license plate readers to check for stolen vehicles.

Auto thefts are big business in Hennepin County. From 2014 to 2018, the County Attorney’s Office received 76,435 cases, nearly 30,000 involving juveniles. More than 45,000 of the cases were charged, with the rest either declined or diverted to a court program.

There has been a slight uptick in auto thefts this year, but the numbers typically fluctuate from year to year, said Andy LeFevour, manager of the community prosecution division.

His office has noticed a spike in thefts in the Somali community, with Somali residents being the victims. The division is producing a public service video in four languages, including Somali, that will explain the consequences of auto theft and how to prevent it.

The County Attorney’s Office has been receiving the auto theft grant from the state since 1997. The grant is used for improved prosecution, collaboration and training with law enforcement, community outreach and enhanced victims’ rights services.

Besides handling cases for Hennepin County’s 45 cities, the office also works on auto theft crimes at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Those cases can range from someone not paying for a rental car to theft of a vehicle from a parking ramp.

Vehicle theft cases can be time-consuming, and suspects often contribute to other crimes, said LeFevour, adding that it’s important for his office to build relationships with local police and focus on prevention. For example, many cases of stolen cars in the Somali community happen because drivers leave their keys in the car.

The grant doesn’t prioritize which cases the office handles, LeFevour said. Many of the cases are complex, he said.

Take Larry D. Johnson of Fridley, who has been convicted of possessing a stolen boat and a stolen tailgate from a truck. His pending case dates back to 2016, when a truck was stolen from a Rogers dealership.

Then there’s Chris C. Ward of Shakopee, who brazenly stole a 2014 Jeep off the street in front of a Minneapolis fire station. The owner, a firefighter, was standing nearby when it happened.

State sentencing guidelines for auto theft are on the low end of the scale. Dedicating staffers to work on just auto theft cases puts attorneys in a better position to argue for longer sentences when appropriate, said LeFevour.

“It’s an important position, because you have to be the face of the office to lots of victims,” he said.