Colorado car thefts could all be felonies under new proposal

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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.

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