DENVER – State lawmakers will join district attorneys and law enforcement officials Monday to unveil new legislation aimed at combating auto theft, a growing problem in Colorado.
According to the Denver Police Department’s crime dashboard, more than 1,000 vehicles have been reported stolen in Denver so far this year.
Preliminary data from the Colorado Auto Theft Task Force shows that more than 41,000 vehicles in Colorado were stolen last year, a 10 percent increase over the previous year.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau ranks Colorado number one in the nation for auto thefts per capita.
The legislation that Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-District 19, will introduce Monday is likely to include recommendations from the Committee on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ).
Last fall, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis tasked the CCJJ with making recommendations for tougher penalties against car thieves.
The recommendations would make it a crime to steal a car, regardless of the car’s value or age.
Auto theft defendants will be charged with first, second or third degree theft of a motor vehicle.
“First degree is a Class 3 felony. Second degree is a Class 4 felony. Third degree is a Class 5 felony. All very serious felonies,” said Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty, who presented the task force’s recommendations to the CCJJ.
The penalty can include imprisonment for one to 12 years depending on the charge and whether there are any aggravating circumstances, such as a previous conviction.
Making all auto theft a felony would be a significant change from Colorado’s current law, which treats the theft of vehicles worth less than $2,000 as a misdemeanor.
“Now, is this going to end car theft overnight? Of course not,” Polis said.
In a recent interview with Denver7, Polis said more needs to be done.
“When you look at our [legislative] auto theft suite, it’s about technology, it’s about identifying where the stolen cars are and recovering them sooner, and it’s about prosecution,” Polis said.
Not everyone believes tougher penalties are the answer.
Alexander Landau of 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 often accused of stealing cars.
“We can’t chase our way out of crime,” Landau said. “I don’t think there’s a strong enough conversation that connects the patterns and practices of criminal behavior and someone’s stability in their own psyche… We’ve seen time and time again that criminalization doesn’t give us those answers.” It doesn’t solve those problems.”
The CCJJ’s recommendations would also create a new offense of recreational or unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.
But someone can only be convicted of a joyride once.
“In other words, if someone takes grandma’s car for a ride and gets chased, convicted of unauthorized use, the second time they do it, it’s going to be more consistent with someone stealing cars, not just taking grandma’s car mistake for a joy ride,” Dougherty said.
The increase in penalties against car thieves is a reversal for some lawmakers who supported legislation in 2021 that weakened penalties for some car thefts.
The Tort Reform Act reclassifies aggravated motor vehicle theft as a misdemeanor if the value of the vehicle is less than $2,000.
Prior to the passage of this bill, vehicle theft was considered a Class 6 felony if the value of the vehicle was more than $1,000 but less than $20,000.
“This legislation passed with almost every Republican and Democrat voting for it,” said Polis, who signed the bill.
Republican Sen. Bob Gardner told Colorado Springs ABC affiliate KRDO that he regrets voting for the Tort Reform Act, which goes into effect in March 2022.
Zenzinger will introduce the new car theft legislation on Monday at 11am
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