Rep. Josh Gottheimer

Peter Haskell/WCBS 880

N.J. Congressman Calls For Legislation To Keep Rental Vehicles Away From Dangerous People

April 25, 2018 - 3:13 pm

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- In the wake of the deadly Toronto van attack, U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) is proposing legislation to make it tougher to get people to use vehicles as weapons.

The legislation is called the Darren Drake Combating 21st Century Weapons Act. It honors a New Milford, New Jersey resident who was killed in a vehicular terror attack on the West Side bike path last year that also left seven others dead and injured at least 12.

As Gottheimer told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott Wednesday, the bill would require auto dealers and rental agencies to share critical information with law enforcement about anyone who might be a threat.

“We know right now that when you show up to rent a vehicle, you give information, right? Your address; who you are; you show your license,” Gottheimer said. There is no comparison right now to that database that the rental car companies collect with any flags that might be coming up with law enforcement; FBI, if you’re a terrorist; if you’ve got a history that we should be aware of and you’re a threat.”

Authorities said Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, the alleged assailant in the Halloween 2017 attack, was driving a Home Depot rental truck he had rented in Passaic, New Jersey.

He drove for several blocks before slamming into a school bus and coming to a stop. Police say he exited the vehicle and shouted "God is great" in Arabic before being shot by police and taken into custody.

In Toronto on Monday, authorities said suspect Alek Minassian, 25, was driving a rented Ryder van when he plowed into and killed 10 pedestrians and injured over a dozen more. A Facebook message has raised the possibility that grudges against women might have been Minassian’s motive, but Gottheimer noted that terrorist groups – in particular ISIS – have urged people to use vehicles as weapons.

“If you look in ISIS manuals, they have magazines that they distribute to their members and those they’re trying to recruit. These are one of the weapons of terror that they are suggesting that the lone wolfs and others around the world, including the United States, use, so what we’re trying to do now is to make sure we get ahead of that,” Gottheimer said. “If we can flag a problem, this is not a new database. It’s actually just using information and matching it – just like you do when you fly – matching against the database, and seeing if it’s somebody that we want renting a vehicle, and making sure we stop terrorists.”

Gottheimer said his proposal is not comparable to a gun background check for rental vehicles, but more like the kind of check that is conducted when someone buys an airline ticket.

“This information exists. We know the FBI... they have several databases where they flag cases of terror threats and other threats of people who are violent criminals, and what this does is in real time… and we’ve been meeting with the rental companies already about this, and met with the Joint Terrorism Task Force – in real time, allow comparative information to go back and forth, and see if we’ve got a problem, and if the problem is flagged, it would go immediately to law enforcement,” he said.

No action would be required of any rental car company or auto dealership, Gottheimer emphasized.

“Law enforcement gets flagged, and you get, say, officials out to stop the potential threat. And you know, I think we should do everything possible to stop threats of terror in our country; threats of ISIS-inspired terror; lone wolf terror, and I’m working incredibly hard with Democrats and Republicans in a bipartisan manner to get this done,” he said.

Gottheimer said the process that would be required under the bill would not take up time or hold up those who are waiting on line to rent a car. He noted that people often set up rentals on their phones or computers ahead of time and type in their address, and just pick up the car when they arrive at the rental agency.

“So most of this will all happen beforehand, right? And that’s when the flag would happen. Just think when you fly now. What do you do? You book your ticket, you put your information online, you put your address in there, it’s expected – we know now, we look to make sure that you’re not in our terrorist database, and we make sure you don’t get on that plane before you can hurt others,” he said. “So think of this as the same idea.”

Gottheimer said he had met multiple times with the parents of Halloween terror victim Drake, and it was Drake’s father, Jimmy Drake, who said authorities could be doing more to prevent rental vehicles from getting into the hands of dangerous people.

“He’s the one who said to me: ‘Why aren’t we ahead of this? Why aren’t we thinking about this? If we had just known we could have stopped this,’ because there was work being done already at the FBI on some initial work and some flags on the terrorist who killed Darren, and you know, if we can get ahead of these things, and he looked at me, the father, and he said, ‘If we can get ahead of these things, why wouldn’t we?’” Gottheimer said.

In Saipov’s criminal case, defense lawyers are asking the government to accept a guilty plea and a sentence of life in prison without parole to provide victims' families and the public with closure. The defense is trying to avert the death penalty for Saipov.

President Donald Trump has taken a close interest in the case. The day after the attack, he tweeted that Saipov "should get the death penalty."

But Jimmy Drake told CBS New York: "Killing that man won't bring my son back. I have no vengeance that I'm seeking."

(© 2018 WCBS 880. CBS News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)