Massachusetts criminals take advantage of ‘loophole’ in car rental law

CANTON, Mass. — A chase, a wreck and a shooting, all recorded in 21 tense seconds by a terrified witness.

The cell phone video---viewed hundreds of thousands of times on social media---was recorded Feb. 21 by a driver on Route 138 in Canton.

According to investigators, the video shows two suspected criminals racing down the two-lane road, ending with one opening fire on another in broad daylight.

“I was disgusted. They had total disregard for other people’s lives,” Canton Police Chief Ken Berkowitz said. “It could have been you, it could have been me.”

Eagle-eyed viewers noticed one peculiar thing: both cars had New York license plates. Berkowitz confirmed the cars involved are both rentals. One was found ditched about a mile from the shooting, he said. No one was hurt and Berkowitz said no arrests have been made.

Law enforcement experts say criminals have been using rented cars to elude police for decades, and it’s not an easy problem to fix.

“I got on the job in 1986 and rental cars have been involved in illicit activity since then,” former Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief Dan Linskey said.

Linskey said the allure of a rented car is obvious: it adds one more layer of anonymity between a suspect and police, especially if it’s rented in someone else’s name. Linskey said it’s common for criminals to use wives, girlfriends, anyone with a clean record to rent a car to commit a crime.

“Individuals use straw people to rent vehicles for their organizations while they engage in criminal activity. It’s a fairly robust business,” Linskey said.

The FBI released a training video in 2019 “to help vehicle rental employees identify suspicious activities and behavior by customers who may wish to use a rented vehicle for nefarious purposes.”

Evidence from a rental car was used by prosecutors to link Aaron Hernandez to the murder of Odin Lloyd. An Enterprise Rent-a-Car employee testified in 2015 about bullet casings discovered in a Nissan Altima after Hernandez returned it. Investigators eventually tied Hernandez to a series of rented vehicles.

Boston defense attorney Joe Serpa said he’s had several clients accused of committing crimes in rentals.

“You rent a car, you’re within the car within minutes. I’m certain police don’t have any up-to-date information on who is driving that car at the time,” Serpa said.

Massachusetts law requires companies keep a “proper written record” on rentals. Those records can be made available “upon written request” by a police chief, according to the statute. In 2011, then-Boston City Councilor Robert Consalvo called for the statute to be updated.

“Clearly, this is a loophole from when they wrote legislation before the advent of computers,” Consalvo said. “But really, it’s a dangerous loophole. Police need this information so that they can immediately begin to investigate these crimes.”

Consalvo is now a state representative in Suffolk County. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Sepra said rental companies may not be in a hurry to change.

“They want to rent cars. They’re in the business of renting cars and making money like any other business, and I’m sure the last thing they want to do is create an impediment that would cause customers to walk away and go elsewhere,” Serpa said.

Boston 25 contacted Enterprise Holdings, Hertz Group and Avid Budget Group for a response to this report.

“We suggest you reach out to the local authorities as we do not comment on police investigations or criminal matters,” an Avis Budget spokesperson said in an email.

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