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Amid spiking car thefts, state lawmakers want more severe punishments for thieves

Senator Rachel Zenzinger leads a press conference at the State Capitol announcing Senate Bill 97 on Monday, January 30, 2023.
Lucas Brady Woods
Senator Rachel Zenzinger leads a press conference at the State Capitol announcing Senate Bill 97 on Monday, January 30, 2023.

Colorado has the highest rate of car theft in the nation, and state lawmakers want to bring those numbers down. A bipartisan bill introduced this week, Senate Bill 97, focuses on strengthening car theft enforcement with more severe and consistent punishments for stealing a vehicle.

Currently, the punishment for auto theft depends on the value of the stolen vehicle . I f the new bill is passed, ho wever, all car thefts would be treated the same. The crime of motor vehicle theft would start as a class three felony and could be as serious as a class five felony.

“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,” Democratic Senator Rachel Zensinger, one of the sponsors of the bill, said at a press conference on Monday. “A car is a car and the crime of stealing one should be treated the same.”

Another sponsor of the bill, Republican Senator Bob Gardner, s aid stealing a car can have a serious impact on a person’s life, especially for Coloradans who can’t afford a replacement.

“Last year, close to $1 billion worth of vehicles were stolen from Colorado residents. That's a huge number,” Gardner said on Monday. “But it doesn't begin to describe the hardship and the burden that auto theft has had . P articularly on those families that are economically challenged, where that vehicle might be their single means of transportation to take their children to school, to take their children to medical appointments and to go to work.”

According to the Common Sense Institute, most motor vehicle theft happens in low-income neighborhoods. Most of the cars being stolen are valued between $15,000 and $24,000, followed by those valued between $5,000 and $10,000.

The bill would also create a separate misdemeanor offense for the unauthorized use of a vehicle. That would apply to situations where a car is used without the owner’s permission. That could mean taking a relative’s car without permission, for example.

The number of motor vehicle thefts in Colorado almost doubled between 2019 and 2022. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation recorded almost 40,000 cars stolen last year alone, the majority of which were in Denver, Aurora, Westminster and Pueblo. A bout 67% of those cars were recovered.

“There's simply no time to lose," Arvada P olice C hief Ed Brady said. “This hurts us all. Auto thieves put our communities in danger.”

According to the Bureau of Investigation, many car thieves also commit secondary offenses using stolen cars su ch as reckless driving, drug dealing, and property crimes. Brady says the more severe punishments included in the bill would provide an important tool police can use to hold car thieves accountable.

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Lucas Brady Woods