Politics

Colorado car thefts could all be felonies under new proposal

All car thefts — regardless of the vehicle’s value — could soon be a felony under proposals being floated by policymakers.

Lawmakers and the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, following Gov. Jared Polis’ request, have been looking at appropriate sentencing for people convicted of stealing motor vehicles. The state recently rocketed to the top of some lists of the most per-capita car thefts, sending policymakers looking for ways to stymie the crime.

Between 2019 and 2021, the number of auto thefts in Colorado rose 86%, according to the commission.

In September, Polis asked the commission to look at sentencing for auto theft, specifically how the severity of the crime is tied to the value of the vehicle. As the law states now, stealing a vehicle valued at less than $2,000 is treated as a misdemeanor. It is a felony to steal more valuable cars, and the severity of the felony increases with the value of the car.

A task force within the commission gave preliminary approval last week to a recommendation that motor vehicle theft be made a felony. 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 shouldn’t be treated lesser than a person with multiple cars having an expensive car stolen.

The recommendation would also create a new misdemeanor for unauthorized use of vehicles for cars taken, but returned or recovered by law enforcement within 24 hours and without damage or being used in other crimes.

Colorado lawmakers are preparing to unveil the accompanying bill later this month.  Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is a sponsor of the bipartisan bill. She called it an equity issue. If a poorer person’s car is stolen, it’s more likely to have a devastating effect, and they’re less likely to be able to handle the financial hit of losing their transportation. Add in that less valuable cars are probably easier to steal, and it’s like putting a target on the people most hurt by the thefts and with lesser consequences for the perpetrators.

Zenzinger recounted when she was a single mom raising young children and how devasting it would have been if her car was stolen.

“It would have been a crisis,” she said.

State Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican who is co-sponsoring the bill in the House of Representatives, likewise said it was an equity issue. Most Coloradans don’t have insurance against car theft and many would struggle to replace a stolen car.

Most car thefts are 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 felt in his Western Slope district, too, he said.

“We are creating victims by not being tough on crime,” Soper said.

There aren’t a lot of car thefts classified as misdemeanors, Attorney General Phil Weiser said, but he nonetheless supports all being upgraded to a felony. He said there are other ideas also being discussed to fight car thefts.

“I’m open to any discussion that can better help law enforcement hold accountable car thieves,” Weiser said.

Dougherty, the Boulder County district attorney on the commission, acknowledged that sentencing isn’t the only factor for auto theft. Some counties, including his, have seen a drop in car theft from the pandemic-era highs.

State Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, sits on the criminal justice commission. The task force overwhelmingly approved the recommendation, but she abstained. As the chair of the senate judiciary committee, she’ll hear the bill when it is formally introduced.

Her own car bears scratches from when people tried to break into it, and her husband had his catalytic converter stolen.

“I’ve heard (about car thefts) from my friends, my family members, my neighbors,” Gonzales said. “But what I’ll be curious to hear with any bill that makes it to the judicial committee is, will it change the mind of anyone who wants to steal a car?”

But, she also understands when people argue all car thefts should be treated the same.

“Would the theft of an engagement ring matter more or less if it were a real diamond or cubic zirconium?” she asked.

Her mind, and aims as a lawmaker, turn to what can be done to address the underlying issues that lead a person to steal a car in the first place. Few car thefts actually result in arrest — the Common Sense Institute put the statewide arrest rate at less than 10% in 2022 — and Gonzales wondered if higher penalties would have an effect on that.

Members of the task force looking at crime rates also worried about over-penalization, though they voted for the recommendation. Task force member Andrew Matson, who is with prisoner and family support nonprofit Colorado-CURE, said he knows people serving decades-long sentences for non-violent crimes.

The bill also comes after an election where Republicans hammered Democrats as being soft on crime, though voters ultimately re-elected all the top-of-ticket Democrats and gave the party a larger majority in the General Assembly.

Zenzinger said she couldn’t comment on if this effort speaks to broader tough-on-crime efforts or the state’s sentencing philosophy. But something needs to be done to curb car thefts, particularly for people most vulnerable to losing their cars and the devastation it would cost, she said.

“I have no idea whether this is reposition or not (on the state’s approach to criminal justice),” she said. “I just know I receive emails almost daily from my constituents about auto theft, catalytic converter theft, things along those lines. They’re worried, they want us to do something, and I think this is actually going to move the needle on trying to interrupt that terrible position we’re in on being first in the country for auto theft.”

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