Car crime

This May 21, 2020, photo shows a parked car with a broken driver's side window after a smash-and-grab break-in. Property crimes such as these, along with stolen vehicles, are on the rise in Colorado, a 2021 Common Sense Institute report states.

Colorado is the No. 1 state in the nation for auto thefts. Lawmakers want to change that with Senate Bill 97.

Currently, the severity of criminal offenses for auto thefts in Colorado depends on the value of the stolen vehicle — ranging from a class 1 misdemeanor for a car worth $2,000 or less, to a class 3 felony for a car worth $100,000 or more. If passed into law, the bill would remove the value-based system and make all auto thefts felonies.

“Not only is it unfair, it simply doesn’t make sense,” said bill sponsor Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, of the current value system. “A stolen car represents much more than stolen property. It impacts people’s ability to get to work, shop for groceries, and live their daily lives.” 

Under the bill, auto theft would be a class 5 felony at the baseline. It would become a class 4 felony if the thief alters the vehicle’s license plates, leaves the state, causes $1,000 or more in damages to the vehicle, injures someone or uses the vehicle in another crime. It would become a class 3 felony if the thief has two prior convictions for auto theft. 

The bill would also create a class 1 misdemeanor offense for "unauthorized use of a motor vehicle": stealing a vehicle but returning or recovering it within 24 hours without damage, which proponents called the “joyride provision.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced the bipartisan-sponsored bill on Monday, sending it to the Senate Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

Bill supporters said they hope increasing the penalty for auto theft would deter criminals from committing the crime. The penalties for class 3, 4 and 5 felonies range from one to 12 years in prison and $1,000 to $750,000 in fines. Class 1 misdemeanors are punishable by up to 364 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.

“There are many causes for the rise in vehicle theft and this bill certainly will not fix the entire problem, but it will give us tools to make some progress,” said District Attorney Brian Mason of Colorado’s 17th judicial district while testifying in support of the bill Monday.

From 2011 to 2020, rates of auto theft increased by 144% in Colorado — the fastest rise in the country — reaching 524.3 thefts per every 100,000 people, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. That’s more than double the national rate of 256. Since 2020, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation estimates that auto thefts have continued to rise by 46% as of 2022.

However, opponents of the bill argued that charging thieves with harsher offenses will not deter theft if the criminals are not getting arrested in the first place.

Approximately 40,000 vehicles were stolen in Colorado in 2022 but only around 3,900 arrests were made, representing less than 10% of stolen vehicles resulting in an arrest, according to data from the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority presented by lawmakers. Of those arrests, approximately 80% were already charged as felonies.

While no one voted against the bill, Sen. Julie Gonzales and Sen. Robert Rodriguez both raised concerns about the effectiveness it will in curbing crime and the over $12 million five-year cost of increasing prison sentences of auto thieves, based on state estimates.

“We simply should not incarcerate more harshly knowing that this is not the solution to the problem,” said Tristan Gorman of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. “What would be a general deterrent effect on this offense is if people thought they were going to be arrested and prosecuted for it.”

The Colorado Criminal Defense Bar is the only organization opposing the bill.

The cities of Denver, Broomfield, Lakewood, Aurora, Greeley, Colorado Springs and Lone Tree are backing the bill, in addition to the Colorado District Attorneys' Council, Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, County Sheriffs of Colorado, Colorado State Patrol, Colorado Municipal Judges Association and other organizations.

Ultimately, proponents of the bill said even if it does not lower auto theft rates, it is still needed to create equity for crime victims and send a message to criminals that Colorado will not stand for auto theft.

“I don’t have any illusions that this will solve the problem altogether,” said bill sponsor Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, “but we have to begin somewhere, and we have to make a statement some time.”

The bill will be heard by the Senate Appropriations Committee in the coming weeks. A hearing date has not yet been scheduled.

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