Colorado car thefts could all be felonies under new proposal

All car thefts – regardless of the value of the vehicle – could soon become a crime if proposals are put forward by policymakers.

Legislatures and the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, at the request of Gov. Jared Polis, have sought appropriate sentencing for those convicted of motor vehicle theft. The state has recently shot to the top of some lists for the most car thefts per capita, prompting policymakers to look for ways to shut down the crime.

Between 2019 and 2021, car thefts in Colorado increased by 86%, according to the commission.

In September, Polis asked the commission to look into the theft car conviction, specifically how the seriousness of the crime was related to the value of the vehicle. As the law now states, stealing a vehicle worth less than $2,000 is treated as a misdemeanor. It is a crime to steal more valuable cars and the severity of the crime increases with the value of the car.

A task force within the Commission last week gave tentative approval to a recommendation to make motor vehicle theft a crime. One task force member, Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty, called it “a matter of fundamental fairness.” A working person whose only car is stolen should be treated no worse than a multi-car person who has an expensive car stolen.

The recommendation would also create a new offense for unauthorized use of vehicles for cars that are taken but returned or recovered by law enforcement within 24 hours and undamaged or used for other crimes.

Colorado lawmakers are preparing to introduce the accompanying bill later this month. Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is a supporter of the bipartisan bill. She called it a stock issue. When a poorer person’s car is stolen, the impact is more likely to be devastating and they are less likely to be able to absorb the financial damage of losing their transportation. Add that less valuable cars are probably easier to steal, and it’s like setting a target on the people who were hurt the most by the thefts, and with lesser consequences for the perpetrators.

Zenzinger shared when she was a single mother raising young children and how devastating it would have been if her car had been stolen.

“That would have been a crisis,” she says.

Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican who is co-sponsoring the bill in the House of Representatives, also said it was an equity issue. Most Coloradans do not have auto theft insurance and many would have difficulty replacing a stolen car.

Most auto thefts occur along the Front Range — Denver, Aurora, Westminster and Pueblo accounted for 53% of stolen cars in the first quarter of 2022, according to the commission — but it’s also being felt in his Western Slope neighborhood, he said.

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