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Motorists drive on the westbound lanes of Speer Boulevard at Grant Street during the evening rush hour on Feb. 11, 2022, in Denver. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo)

Colorado lawmakers on Monday introduced a bipartisan bill aimed at cracking down on the scourge of vehicle theft in the state by decoupling the cost of a stolen car from the criminal penalty a thief faces and by increasing penalties for repeat auto theft offenders.

Senate Bill 97 would make stealing any vehicle a Class 5 felony, which is generally punishable by one to three years in prison or a fine between $1,000 to $100,000, or both.

Right now, the penalty level for an auto thief depends on the value of the vehicle they steal. The lowest level offense is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail, for stealing a car worth up to $2,000 if it’s a first or second auto theft. The highest level offense is a Class 3 felony, punishable by up to 12 years in prison, for stealing a car valued at $100,000 or more.

Under the new measure, a person who steals a car could be charged with Class 4 felony based on aggravating circumstances, such as should a thief keep the vehicle for more than a day, use the vehicle during the commission of another crime or take steps to alter or disguise the vehicle. Class 4 felonies are punishable by up to six years in prison.

The legislation, brought at politicians face pressure to deal with an increasing number of car thefts across the state, would also make a third or subsequent auto theft conviction a Class 3 felony, which are generally punishable by four to 12 years in prison and fines of $3,000 to $750,000 or both.

Tim Lane, with the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, said the legislation creates a tiered auto theft penalty system that aims to send a message that no matter the value of a vehicle, stealing an automobile is a serious offense. Lane said the legislation likely wouldn’t change the maximum penalty for a juvenile auto thief. 

“This is one thing to help with auto theft,” he said, “but it’s by no means the entire solution.”

Lane spoke at a news conference with Democratic and Republican state lawmakers. Also attending the event were Denver-area mayors and police chiefs, as well as local prosecutors and key members of Gov. Jared Polis’ administration.

“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,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill, at Monday’s news conference. “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.”

The other lead sponsors of the bill are Republican Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs and Reps. Matt Soper, R-Delta, and Shannon Bird, D-Westminster.

Polis, in a written statement, endorsed the measure.

“To achieve our shared goal of making Colorado one of the top ten safest states in the next five years, it is critical we address rising auto theft crimes in our state,” he said. “Coloradans are counting on us. 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. Criminals should be held accountable for the crimes they commit and charged in a consistent, just, and rational way.”

The new legislation also includes a “joy-ride” provision that would make it a Class 1 misdemeanor to use a vehicle without the owner’s permission as long as the car is returned within 24 hours without damage and only minor traffic offenses were committed. A second and subsequent conviction for the joy-ride offense would be a Class 5 felony, however.

The bill hasn’t been scheduled yet for its first hearing.


The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul