Bill would increase penalties for car thefts in Colorado in an attempt to deter criminals

People convicted of stealing cars in Colorado could face stiffer penalties if new recommendations from a sentencing task force are adopted.
Posted at 4:53 PM, Jan 30, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-31 00:30:37-05

DENVER — A bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled a bill Monday to crack down on car thefts in the state. The bill changes the classification of charges a thief will face, no longer tying the charge to the value of a car but to the seriousness of the crime and prior offenses.

“Coloradans are crying out for help, and they are demanding that we take action,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada.

The Colorado Metropolitan Auto Task Force estimates that more than 40,000 cars were stolen statewide in 2022, a 12% jump from the previous year.

Colorado currently leads the nation in auto thefts with an 86% increase from 2019 to 2021 according to the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Cities like Broomfield experienced a 170% increase in thefts while Grand County reported a 250% increase and Boulder County experienced a 60% increase.

Gaugue Authier is one of those statistics. He left his car at an RTD park and ride lot near the airport to attend the Stock Show a couple of weeks ago and when he returned his car was missing.

“It wasn't worth very much because the life that I've put on it, probably maybe around $2,000. But it's, you know, it was a good car for me,” Authier said.

Authier is not able to work currently as he battles a serious illness, so his wife is the sole provider for his family. He used the car mainly to get to medical appointments and said he only had liability insurance so he wasn’t able to get reimbursed by his insurance company.

“People need to understand that it's not okay to do these things, and it hurts other people. And it's gotten bad here in Colorado, and something needs to change,” he said.

Authier’s case is not uncommon in Colorado, though.

In the first quarter of 2022, Denver, Aurora, Westminster and Pueblo were ranted in the top 10 in the nation for auto theft rates.

Currently, state law says stealing a car worth $20,000 or more is a class 4 felony while stealing a car worth less than $20,000 constitutes a class 5 felony. A class 3 felony is committed if the car is worth more than $100,000.

However, the bill’s sponsors argue the value shouldn’t matter and that those who are middle or lower income can actually be impacted more by having their cars stolen than the wealthy.

“We are saying that no car theft in our state is acceptable. We are also providing victims of car theft, all victims, equal justice and improving equity,” Zenzinger said.

Under the proposed bill, the felony 3, 4 and 5 classifications would depend on factors like how much monetary damage was caused, whether the thief tried to disguise the car’s identity like changing out the license plates or VIN number, whether they used the car to commit another crime, whether they’ve been caught stealing cars in the past, and more.

It also creates a new misdemeanor offense for those who take a car without the owner’s permission but return it within 24 hours, don’t cause any damage and don’t use it to commit another crime.

At a news conference Monday, lawmakers spoke about how disruptive having a car stolen can be on a person’s life.

“It's something that if most of us in this room were to have our car stolen, we probably wouldn't have insurance to cover that theft, all of a sudden leaving us having to scramble for what's left in our savings accounts or borrow money and take out just one more loan,” said Rep. Shannon Bird, D-Westminster.

The lawmakers were surrounded by law enforcement officers and district attorneys at the press conference who support a change in the law, saying these stolen vehicles are often used in secondary crimes and that this will give them the tools they need to properly punish auto thefts.

However, both lawmakers and district attorneys warned that this legislation will not stop car thefts on its own.

Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, said there are other steps lawmakers can and should take to help.

“Others include ensuring that our police departments and sheriff's officers are properly staffed, trained and funded to deal with auto theft and to make sure that those who commit these crimes and do so on a repeated basis are not released without sufficient bail or release conditions to ensure that they don't reoffend while awaiting trial,” Gardner said.

David Hayes, the president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police and the chief of police in Estes Park, says agencies across the state are having a hard time recruiting and retaining officers and fewer officers means less enforcement.

He would like to see more resources for departments across the state to stop these crimes.

“Put more officers on the street so more visible presence on the street, some more community meetings, reminders to all of us about not leaving cars running and what the risk are and doing that,” Hayes said.

The calls for more resources and funding for police officers come at a time, though, when national discourse has once again focused on demand for police reforms in the wake of the death of Tyre Nichols. Protesters and critics of law enforcement have begun to call once again for police to be defunded.

Hayes acknowledged the scrutiny police departments are under after recent high-profile cases but said most police officers are good people trying to do the right thing and there can be a balance.

“I think we can do both, I think we can make sure that our law enforcement agencies are adequately staffed and that they're adequately trained. They also have to be transparent, and they also have to be responsible to our communities,” Hayes said. “It's also a culture in our law enforcement agencies to make sure that we have the right culture. The idea is that we were supposed to reduce crime, we're supposed to help people.”

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