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Colorado officials to unveil new legislation to crack down on car theft

Proposal likely to consider all car theft a felony, regardless of vehicle's value
Posted at 2:27 PM, Jan 29, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-30 11:35:33-05

DENVER – State lawmakers will join with district attorneys and law enforcement officials on Monday to unveil new legislation aimed at combating auto theft, a growing problem in Colorado.

According to the Denver Police Department crime dashboard, more than 1,000 vehicles have been reported stolen in Denver so far this year.

Preliminary data from the Colorado Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force show over 41,000 vehicles in Colorado were stolen last year, a 10% increase from the previous year.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau ranks Colorado as number one in the nation for car thefts per capita.

The legislation state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-District 19, will introduce on Monday will likely include recommendations from the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ).

Last fall, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis tasked the CCJJ with coming up with recommendations to strengthen penalties against auto thieves.

The recommendations would make auto theft a felony, regardless of a car’s value or age.

Those accused of auto theft would be charged with first-, second- or third-degree motor vehicle theft.

Colorado officials to unveil new legislation to crack down on car theft

“First degree is a Class 3 felony. Second degree is a Class 4 felony. Third degree is a Class 5 felony. All very serious offenses,” said Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty, who presented a task force’s recommendations to the CCJJ.

Punishment could include prison time from one to 12 years, depending on the charge and whether any aggravating factors are present, such as a previous conviction.

Making all car thefts a felony would be a significant change from current Colorado law, which treats theft of vehicles valued under $2,000 as a misdemeanor.

“Now, will that end car theft overnight? Of course not,” Polis said.

In a recent interview with Denver7, Polis said more would have to be done.

“When you look at our [legislative] package on car theft, it’s about technology, it’s about identifying where stolen cars are and recovering them earlier, and it’s about prosecuting,” said Polis.

Not everyone believes tougher penalties are the answer.

Alexander Landau with the Denver Justice Project says the state’s focus should be on providing more resources to address the mental health of young people, who are the ones often charged with auto theft.

“We cannot prosecute our way out of crime,” said Landau. “I think there isn’t a strong enough conversation that correlates patterns and practices of criminal behavior and someone’s stability inside their own psyche…We have seen time and time again that criminalization does not get us those answers. It does not solve these problems."

The CCJJ recommendations would also create a new misdemeanor offense for joyriding, or unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.

But someone could only be convicted of joyriding once.

“In other words, if someone's taking grandma's car for a joyride, and they're prosecuted, convicted of unauthorized use, the second time they're doing it would be more consistent with someone who's stealing cars not just having mistakenly took grandmother's car for a joyride,” said Dougherty.

Increasing penalties against car thieves is a reversal for some lawmakers, who supported legislation in 2021 that weakened penalties for some car theft.

The Misdemeanor Reform Act reclassified aggravated motor vehicle theft as a misdemeanor if the value of the vehicle was under $2,000.

Prior to that bill’s passage, theft of a vehicle was considered a Class 6 felony if the vehicle’s value was over $1,000 but under $20,000.

“That legislation was passed with pretty much every Republican and Democrat voting for it,” said Polis, who signed the bill into law.

Republican Senator Bob Gardner told Colorado Springs ABC affiliate KRDO that he regrets voting for the Misdemeanor Reform Act, which went into effect in March 2022.

Zenzinger will unveil the new auto theft legislation Monday at 11 a.m.

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