State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, introduces legislation that would make auto theft a felony, regardless of the car’s value, on Jan. 30, 2023. (Sara Wilson/Colorado Newsline)
Colorado lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill Monday that aims to combat auto theft in the state by making any vehicle theft a felony, regardless of the value of the stolen car.
“Right now, the severity of the penalty for stealing a car depends on the value of the vehicle. This simply doesn’t make sense,” state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and co-prime sponsor of the legislation, told reporters Monday. “It shouldn’t matter if a stolen car is a brand new BMW worth more than most folks make in a year or a 20-year-old Prius, like mine, worth $700. A car is a car and the crime of stealing one should be treated the same.”
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Current law makes the penalty for vehicle theft dependent on the value of the stolen vehicle. It is a misdemeanor, for example, to steal a car worth up to $2,000.
Senate Bill 23-97 would make all vehicle thefts a Class 5 felony, with more severe charges based on the defendant’s behavior rather than the value of the car. Class 5 felonies are punishable by up to three years in prison and fines up to $100,000.
The bill is sponsored by Zenzinger and Republican Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs in the Senate and Reps. Shannon Bird, a Westminster Democrat, and Matt Soper, a Delta Republican, in the House of Representatives.
Someone who has two prior convictions for car theft would face a Class 3 felony for their third offense, punishable by up to 12 years in prison and fines up to $750,000. A defendant would be charged with a Class 4 felony, punishable up to six years in prison and fines up to $500,000, if they keep the car for over a day, try to disguise it, take it across state lines or use it in another crime, among other circumstances.
“No matter what the value is, our society takes (vehicle theft) as being serious and it should be treated that way. There’s a deterrent aspect to that, ” said Tim Lane, the legislative liaison with the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council.
The legislation comes as lawmakers face pressure from law enforcement and other elected officials to quell the rise in auto theft across the state, including a call from Gov. Jared Polis in his State of the State address to impose tougher penalties for vehicle theft. Rising crime, including property crime like vehicle theft, was also a prominent theme in the midterm election cycle.
Colorado ranks first for auto thefts and experienced an 86% increase from 2019 to 2021. Denver, Aurora, Westminster and Pueblo all rank in the top 10 cities for auto theft in the country.
“Imagine waking up one morning to find your only way of getting to work, of getting your kids to school or day care is gone,” Zenzinger said. “Picture heading to the parking lot after a long day of work to find your way home has been taken. Imagine the terror of being held up at gunpoint and forced to leave your vehicle in a carjacking. Too many of our neighbors don’t need to imagine what this feels like, because they have lived it firsthand.”
Lawmakers said the emphasis of the bill is not only about reducing those numbers, but also about disentangling the wealth of the victim from criminal liability. A lower-value car, which falls under the current misdemeanor guidelines, may be parked on the street rather than a garage or not have an alarm system, for example.
“This is about equal justice under the law for victims,” Soper said. “We should treat poor and wealthy victims the same under the law, because a car is a tool to be able to get to work, keep your job, get to the doctor, get your kids to school.”
Polis is also backing the legislation.
“A vehicle’s monetary value does not represent the value to the owner and the impacts a stolen vehicle has on a person or family’s daily life,” he said in a statement. “Criminals should be held accountable for the crimes they commit and charged in a consistent, just, and rational way. I applaud the sponsors for taking bipartisan steps to address auto theft crimes, no matter the value of the vehicle.”
The bill was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee and does not have a first hearing scheduled yet.
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