Law enforcement officials testify in support of an auto theft prevention bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 27, 2023. (Sara Wilson/Colorado Newsline)
A bill that would make all car thefts in Colorado a felony-level crime passed through a state Senate committee amid questions of whether the policy would actually reduce crime or increase the number of solved cases.
Senate Bill 23-97 won unanimous approval from the five-member Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.
And though the bill focuses on increasing the severity of punishment for auto theft, bill sponsors say it will have the most impact on the victims who find themselves without transportation to work or school and face large economic hurdles after their vehicle is stolen.
“This bill is about equity and rightsizing the crime. It will not solve auto theft and it was not, or ever intended to be, the solution to the auto theft crisis in Colorado. But we do believe it is a piece of the puzzle in addressing the issue,” bill sponsor state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, said.
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It is also sponsored by Republican state Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs, Democratic Rep. Shannon Bird of Westminster and Republican Rep. Matt Soper of Delta.
“It’s a message to our constituents that we are serious about this,” Gardner said, agreeing with Zenzinger that it will not solve auto theft in the state. “We have to begin somewhere. We have to make a statement sometime. I think this will be a clear one.”
We should not incarcerate more harshly, knowing that this is not the solution to the problem.
– Tristan Gorman, of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar
Elected leaders and members of law enforcement testified in strong support of the bill, claiming it is the right step in addressing the rise in car theft in Colorado. The bill makes all car theft a felony, regardless of the vehicle’s value, with higher felony classification based on behavior. Right now, thefts of vehicles valued under $2,000 are categorized as misdemeanors.
“What was once an occasional occurrence has now become a daily fixture of our community,” said Broomfield Mayor Guyleen Castriotta. “This bill may be a step towards decreasing the number of car theft victims in our community by creating a deterrent and disincentive to future criminal activities.”
Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, asked law enforcement witnesses about how many car theft cases are actually solved and questioned whether the bill would lead to better case results or curb crime.
According to the Colorado State Patrol data, about 40,000 cars were reported stolen last year. Around 3,900 arrests were made, and 80% of those arrests were for felony charges.
“This bill seems to be quite downstream, because we are talking about the penalties once an arrest has been made, as opposed to addressing the upstream issues and challenges,” she said.
She also highlighted the bill’s fiscal note that estimates an approximately $12 million increase to the Department of Corrections’ operating costs over five years if the bill becomes law, as well as about $27.6 million in construction costs to increase inmate bed capacity.
“This bill is not going to solve or dramatically reduce the incidence of motor vehicle theft in the state of Colorado,” Tristan Gorman of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar said. “We should not incarcerate more harshly, knowing that this is not the solution to the problem.”
The CCDB is the only organization listed in opposition to the bill. It has the support of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, County Sheriffs of Colorado, Colorado State Patrol, Colorado Municipal Judges Association, as well as the cities of Denver, Broomfield, Lakewood, Aurora, Greeley, Colorado Springs and Lone Tree.
The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where a hearing date has not been set.
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