Bill to crack down on auto theft passes first committee test with one important carveout

Lock your cars! Vehicle theft spikes in COVID-19 pandemic
Posted at 7:00 PM, Feb 27, 2023

DENVER — Ricci-Lee Hotz couldn’t believe her bad luck. In October 2021, her car was parked in a port at her apartment complex when someone broke into it and stole some of her personal items, like CD’s.

The car was inoperable, so she had to pay to get it towed to a mechanic and fixed. Right when things were starting to get back to normal, a week later, someone tried to break in once again, damaging her door lock, which required another trip to the mechanic for her 2015 Hyundai Sonata.

Hotz bought surveillance cameras to watch her car and looked for other ways to protect her property.

“Then a few weeks later, I had someone that kind of walked up, check the door, walked away. So, I called and reported it just so that people took a look at it. And then a week or two after that, I, unfortunately, ended up having my car completely stolen,” Hotz said.

The theft affected every aspect in her life. She had to scramble to find a way to get around town while talking with her insurance about a replacement.

“I just thought, ‘How am I going to get to work? How am I going to get everywhere that I need to pay the bills? If I need to Uber or Lyft or take a taxi now, all that money is coming out of the money that I'm traveling to make income,'” Hotz said.

It took months for Hotz to find a replacement vehicle, which her insurance did not fully cover. All of a sudden, she went from not having a car payment to having to payments for another vehicle.

The entire experience was tiresome, burdensome and left Hotz feeling violated. It’s why she supports Senate Bill 23-097, which would make virtually all car thefts in Colorado a felony, regardless of the vehicle’s value.

The bill faced its first committee hearing Monday in the Colorado Senate with support from mayors from across the state as well as law enforcement.

Others, like the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, testified against the bill, saying it won’t solve or reduce motor vehicle theft and that the state shouldn’t prosecute more harshly for a property crime.

However, the bill does have one important carveout. It 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.

“This is like when a teenager goes joy riding in grandma's car,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, during a press conference in January.

Colorado has seen its share of serious car crashes caused by teenagers out for a joy ride over the past year.

On August 7, 2022, the Wheat Ridge Police Department posted a series of photos showing a car wreck where a 15-year-old girl took her parents’ vehicle without their permission, started speeding and then crashed into a brick wall at the Collier Hospice Center.

Then on August 26, a 13-year-old girl crashed a car into a Boulder Valley School District bus while allegedly out on a joy ride, injuring at least one person. The car then hit another vehicle.

Meanwhile, on January 12, 2023, a 13-year-old drove a car through the fence of a home near the intersection of East Mississippi Avenue and South Elkhart Street. The car also had four other teenagers in it, all of whom were under the age of 15.

Most recently, on Monday, a 14-year-old allegedly stole a Penske truck in Wheat Ridge, drove it while intoxicated and then ran it off the road on northbound Kipling, blocking off part of the roadway for a time.

Because these joyrides ended in a crash and property damage, they would not qualify under the bill for the misdemeanor. However, other joy rides where the car is returned without damage and is only taken for 24 hours or less would.

“When I did juvenile practice, I did see those individuals who took a car, and they took it from a family member. And they, you know, they wanted to go to a concert or they wanted to go someplace else to a party, and they brought it back. There wasn't that intent to permanently deprive that we think of for serious motor vehicle thefts, and that's why this bill includes provision for an unauthorized use of a motor vehicle,” Tim Lane from the Colorado District Attorney's Council said during a press conference unveiling the bill in January.

Brother Jeff Fard, founder and executive director of Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center, agrees that a teen facing a misdemeanor versus a felony can make a serious difference in the trajectory of their lives, but he worries about the disproportionate impacts a bill like this can have on communities of color.

“Who is that going to benefit? Someone who can afford legal representation that can make the case that my child is not a criminal, he's just having a good time and was just joy riding and didn't cause any property damage and was just being mischievous. Well, those are not the luxuries that Black and brown communities enjoy,” Fard said.

Fard knows that car thefts and other crimes are on the rise in the state and making people feel unsafe. However, he worries about the misdemeanors tying the hands of the criminal justice system to force charges against kids, creating a consistent relationship with the teen and law enforcement rather than focusing on diversion or better behavior.

Fard also worries about mandatory minimum sentences and the subjective nature of courts when it comes to misdemeanor crimes.

Beyond that, he says the felony portion of the bill could also have disproportionate impacts.

“Those tough on crime policies largely impact our communities. So, if you're talking about making every vehicle a felony, what this is really going to do is make Black and brown and lower income individuals have an interaction with the criminal justice system that will follow them for the rest of their lives,” Fard said.

Instead, he would like to see lawmakers focus on the root causes of crime as well as a more targeted approach to car theft crime rings rather that focusing on the low-level offenders.

“If we think we're going to legislate our way out of these societal issues, we have a long history to prove that that is not the case,” Fard said.

Nevertheless, the bill passed its first committee unanimously Monday.

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