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Vehicle thefts increased by 9% in 2020 from 2019, with 873,000 car thefts reported. File photo.

Colorado ranks No. 1 in the nation for motor vehicle theft and a bipartisan group of legislators wants to get the state off the top of the podium.

The lawmakers seek an about-face on current state law dictating the punishment for stealing a car based on its value and they want tougher penalties particularly on repeat offenders. 

That's the challenge Gov. Jared Polis posed to Colorado’s legislators during his State of the State address earlier this month, when he urged them to pass tougher penalties on car theft, noting the crime has directly affected both policymakers and members of the public alike.

Current law sets the penalties for motor vehicle theft as follows:

  • Class 5 felony if the value of the vehicle is less than $20,000;
  • Class 4 felony if the value of the vehicle is more than $20,000 but less than $100,000; and,
  • Class 3 felony if the value of the vehicle is more than $100,000 or if the defendant has been convicted of an offense involving motor vehicle theft twice before in Colorado or another state or U.S. territory.

The lawmakers said basing penalties on vehicle value creates a hardship for car owners for whom an inexpensive car is their only mode of transportation for work, school, daycare or other common tasks.

The vast majority of vehicles stolen in Colorado are valued at the lower end of the scale, according to a 2022 report from the Common Sense Institute, which reported last September that 85.6% of stolen vehicles are valued at less than $25,000, and 63.%% are valued at less than $15,000.

The Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association also reported last year that Colorado had a rate of 68.56 auto thefts per 100,000 people in the first half of 2022. More than 40,000 motor vehicles were stolen in 2022, up 12% over 2021, according Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, who cosponsored Senate Bill 97 with Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs.  

Current law, which weighs the penalty depending on the value of the vehicle, is unfair, Zenzinger said, adding the bill would provide equal justice to the victims of car theft.

Nearly $1 billion worth of motor vehicles were stolen in 2022, said Gardner, who noted that doesn't begin to describe the hardship and burden vehicle theft creates, especially for economically challenged residents.

Polis' plea to the legislature came less than two years after signing legislation that lowered the penalty for some car theft offenses. Polis in 2021 approved legislation that overhauled Colorado’s misdemeanor laws, whose provisions included making it a Class 1 misdemeanor to steal a car if its value is less than $2,000, although the law dictating penalties tied to the value of a motor vehicle go back to at least 2004. 

Polis cited the work by local governments, saying the latter have identified tools to successfully fight crime in their communities. Aurora, for example, approved what may be the strictest penalties in the state for car theft — penalties that include a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 60 days, going up to 120 days for repeat offenses. The city also adopted tougher penalties for stealing essential vehicle parts, including catalytic converters, of up to 364 days in jail and a maximum $2,650 fine. State law caps jail sentence for violating municipal ordinances at 364 days.

Colorado is among the worst in the nation when it comes to car theft. Car theft in Denver, for example, is second-highest in America, while three other Colorado cities rank in the Top 10, according to a study by the Common Sense Institute. Car thefts are on track to exceed 48,000 in 2022, while arson, robbery and vandalism also continue to spike, said the study, which cited FBI statistics.

Law enforcement leaders, policymakers and criminologists remain divided on the causes of the spike in car theft — and they also diverge on the right prescription to it. Some argue that people steal cars over and over again because pretrial-release practices and state penalties for car thefts are too lenient. Others counter that penalties themselves don’t act as a deterrent and insist the COVID-19 pandemic created a perfect storm of circumstances that made a ripe incubator for car thefts.

The proposed legislation imposes tougher penalties on repeat offenders, according to Tim Lane of the Colorado District Attorneys' Council.

The bill looks at the behavior of the defendant rather than the car value, ranging from a Class 5 felony to a more serious Class 3 felony, which would apply, for example to repeat offenders. 

Under the bill, a repeat offender — defined as someone with at least two prior convictions in Colorado or anywhere else in the nation — commits a first-degree felony offense for stealing a vehicle. That carries a Class 3 felony charge and a penalty of up to 12 years in prison.

A second-degree motor vehicle theft, a Class 4 felony, applies when a vehicle is stolen and is held onto by the thief for more than 24 hours. A new third-degree charge, a Class 5 felony, applies to unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, including theft. 

"This is less about the thieves and more about the victims," Zenzinger said. 

The bill is not a fix-all for the motor vehicle theft, proponents said.

They said also needed are more resources and staffing for law enforcement and changes to the state's bail laws that allow an alleged repeat car thief to be back on the streets hours after an arrest.

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