In a city where car theft is treated like nabbing a chocolate bar from a convenience store, one neighborhood is finally seeing justice for a repeat offender.
A cluster of Parkrose denizens living around Northeast 105th Avenue and Shaver Street have been awaiting the judicial fate of 21-year-old David Dahlen, an alleged car and property thief whose trial date has been postponed for months.
Dahlen was taken into custody last September (“Witnesses won’t back down over neighborhood menace’s many postponed trial dates,” MCM February 2018). He was arrested under suspicion of having committed several different car thefts. Dahlen’s Feb. 13 trial date was again postponed to March 5, frustrating attentive neighbors who had been following his case. Then, on Friday, Feb. 16, seemingly out of thin air, the chain was broken.
“I got a call from an advocate with the district attorney’s office that he was going in for his plea hearing that Friday and immediately started calling neighbors who were interested in being at his trial,” explains Sean Lechner, one neighbor who has watched Dahlen grow up and who has been instrumental as a witness. “David pled guilty to five car thefts and was talking about his meth addiction with the judge. Unlawful use of a motor vehicle is what he was convicted of. In terms of restitution, my understanding is that he’s going to have to pay for six different vehicles.”
Dahlen was convicted of five counts of unauthorized use of a vehicle, a Class C felony in the State of Oregon. The result: he was sentenced to three years and two additional years of post-prison supervision (PPS), which is like parole. According to the Multnomah County website, the standard conditions of PPS include some of the following: paying supervision fees and fines ordered by the court, remaining clean (no use or possession of controlled substances other than those medically prescribed), submitting to breath or urine tests to prove sobriety and participating in substance abuse evaluations as directed by a supervising officer.
Neighbors like Lechner see silver linings in the drug-specific clauses of the PPS verdict. Dahlen, who has been a longtime drug user, may be forced to face his demons and turn over a new leaf.
“I feel good about the deal,” says Lechner. “They were talking about possibly five years with one year of probation, but if he has a longer probation, he’d have to change his ways dramatically. I saw David, and they let me talk to him for a few minutes. He looks a lot better; he’s not on drugs. He looks more human now. So there might be a chance and some hope that he might come out of this and be a better person.”
Lechner acknowledges that David’s future is for now, at least partially, in his own hands.
“If I understood the judge right, if he screws up, he’s going to serve the remainder of that potential time, which could mean the full 25 years,” says Lechner. In Oregon, a Class C felony means a maximum term of five years for an offender. Multiply that by five and you get 25 years, meaning Dahlen could be locked up until he’s well into his forties.
In theorizing how Dahlen’s sudden plea hearing came to pass after months of stagnation, Lechner believes a shift in deputy district attorneys may have played a small part. Haley Rayburn, the deputy who was working on Dahlen’s case, left her post in February and was replaced by Kevin Demer. Demer is a seasoned deputy DA who has been working with the city for more than 20 years.
In a statement to the Mid-county Memo, Demer says, “A problem that occurred here is that Mr. Dahlen was charged multiple times for new felony offenses while on release from other felony cases. Instead of releasing him, I believe that it would have been better for him and the safety of the community not to release him. Since he was released and picked up more charges, multiple times, he ended up with so many charges and cases that he was sent to prison. If he had been kept in custody after the second case, he would have likely been placed into what is called the ‘treatment readiness’ dorm in the jail. Then he would have likely been given the opportunity for drug treatment. Usually, that entails probation [instead of prison] with prison suspended. If the person then reoffends or totally fails on probation, then the prison sentence would be imposed.”
Lechner claims that Demer was impressed to see that Lechner, as well as some other neighbors (including William Ganschow and his wife, Juliette) had shown up for the hearing in representation of their community. Demer was taken aback, calling the sight “rare.”
According to FBI statistics released and reported by Willamette Week late last year, Portland is the third-worst city in the country for car theft. Dahlen’s case is an exemplar of a condition specific to Portland whereby thieves are often arrested only to be released, likely due to prison overcrowding. From there, crimes multiply before sentences are given. This can delay potential substance abuse identification and can increase sentences for people like Dahlen who could have benefitted from rehabilitation.
In the 2018 Oregon House of Representatives, there is currently a bill (House Bill 4161) that aims to make it easier to prosecute repeat offenders of car theft. The wording of this bill is much more concise than the current law. It states that “a person commits the crime of unauthorized use of a vehicle when: The person knowingly takes, operates, exercises control over or otherwise uses another’s vehicle, boat or aircraft without consent of the owner,” as well as when “the person is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the owner of the vehicle does not consent to the taking, operation or other use of or the exercise of control over the vehicle.” A similar bill stalled last year due to its costliness.
Being incarcerated doesn’t mean Dahlen is in good hands, but rewards are in reach if he exhibits good behavior. He could be released early. “He can reduce his sentence by behaving and working for the prison, also by engaging in drug treatment while in prison. The likelihood is high that he will qualify,” says Demer.
As for Dahlen’s neighbors, they too have been rewarded. They now coexist within a tight-knit community that appreciates the little things, such as listening to the sound of crickets at night rather than shouting matches or police sirens disturbing the peace.