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 senators on Monday approved a proposal to tie the penalty of stealing a car to behavior rather than to the vehicle's value, a move supporters say would curb car theft in the state.

The measure received unanimous support in the Senate. 

Under current law, 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.

Supporters of Senate Bill 23-097 argue that the status quo "simply doesn’t make sense.” Critics say charging thieves with harsher offenses would not deter theft if the criminals are not getting arrested in the first place.

“Auto theft on any level is a serious crime, and it warrants serious consequences, regardless of the direct monetary impact. So, I am pleased with today’s vote that moves the bill forward,” Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, one of the bill's sponsors, said in a news release. 

Under the measure, auto theft would become 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.

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.

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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. Of those arrests, about 80% were already charged as felonies.

Colorado’s crime landscape, notably the spike in car theft in the last few years, compelled Gov. Jared Polis in January to ask lawmakers to enact tougher penalties on car theft, noting the crime has directly affected both policymakers and members of the public alike.

Earlier, Sen. Julie Gonzales and Sen. Robert Rodriguez raised concerns about the proposal's effectiveness in curbing crime and the over $12 million five-year cost of increasing prison sentences of auto thieves, based on state estimates.

Tristan Gorman of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, which opposed the legislation, also argued the more effective approach to deterrence is when people "thought they were going to be arrested and prosecuted for it.”

Supporters noted the proposal received the backing of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.  

An award-winning journalist, Luige serves as editor of Colorado Politics and The Denver Gazette. He previously covered politics in Arizona and wrote about national security in the Philippines, where he began his career in journalism.