Right now, the severity of the sentence for stealing a car depends on how nice it is. A new measure would change that

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Westbound traffic on Interstate 70 in Denver was slow but moving Monday afternoon, Aug.15, 2022, as rain drenched parts of Colorado’s Front Range. Some roads in the southern suburbs were flooded.

Amid political fighting and attack ads about Colorado’s high number of auto thefts, Democrats and Republicans are quietly working together to strengthen the penalties for people convicted of stealing cars.

Since the 1990s, people convicted of stealing cars in Colorado face varying sentences based on the value of a car stolen. Those sentencing guidelines have changed in bipartisan votes through the years, but generally, stealing a car worth $2,000 or less today is a misdemeanor. The more expensive cars are charged as lesser felonies and the even more expensive cars are charged as higher felonies.

But, as Colorado’s auto thefts jumped in just a couple of years, from 22,395 reported thefts in 2019 to 42,094 in 2021, prosecutors, law enforcement, activists and even the state’s Democratic governor started feeling like that sentencing structure wasn’t fair.

“Let’s be real, the higher up the income bracket you are, the more likely you are to have an alternate vehicle,” said Tom Raynes, head of the Colorado District Attorney’s Council. “Where lower income folks may only have one vehicle and even though it’s only worth $1,000 it’s devastating to lose it.”

On that, advocate Christie Donner, who runs the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, agrees.

“It’s just pure elitism,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. The more resources people have, probably, the better able they are to absorb the loss.”

A new measure would make all auto thefts a felony

All of the elected district attorneys in Colorado agreed to support a measure that would make all auto thefts a felony, no matter the value of the car. 

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis wrote a letter in September to the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, a bipartisan group of prosecutors, defense attorneys and criminal justice advocates, urging them to put together a legislative proposal to strengthen and reform the state’s auto theft penalties.

“Enhancing the penalties associated with auto theft, regardless of the value of the vehicle stolen, has the potential to make us safer and improve the quality of life in Colorado,” Polis wrote. “Auto theft is a devastating property crime for those affected, who often lose their only way to get to work or get to the store.”

Polis said that if they didn’t get to it, he would do it on his own.

“This is a top priority of mine, and even if the commission does not come forward with recommendations this year, I will look to work with the legislature to enact reforms in this area in the upcoming session,” he wrote.

How it’s playing out in the AG race

Colorado’s auto theft problem has been a contentious topic in the race for attorney general, though, in reality, both candidates aren’t that far apart on the fixes.

Both support strengthening the penalties for auto theft convictions and both support getting rid of Colorado’s decades old value-based system for sentences, which would make all auto thefts a felony.

“I wholeheartedly support equal punishments for auto thieves, regardless of the value of the stolen vehicle,” Phil Weiser, the state incumbent attorney general and a Democrat, told the Gazette. “This is particularly important for working Coloradans with limited means that rely daily on their vehicle, from getting to work to school and daycare drop offs to doctor visits.”

Republican AG candidate and Arapahoe County District Attorney John Kellner echoed this sentiment and called for a special legislative session to specifically strengthen the penalties for auto theft. Kellner believes all auto theft should be a low-level felony and those who have been convicted more than once should face an even higher felony.

“Those who can least afford to lose their car are at a greater risk of having it stolen,” Kellner said.  “My hope is that the legislature will increase the penalties for car theft across the board, making all car theft a felony offense.”

Both candidates are lashing out at the other for the problem.

Kellner has accused Weiser of supporting legislation that created the value-based system for penalties. That idea first entered Colorado law in 1999, way before Weiser was in office.

"He needs to be going to the legislature and advocating for smart policies that keep people safe. Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened. Last year, my opponent supported a bill that made what used to be a felony to steal a car into a misdemeanor," Kellner said to 5280 Magazine. "We’ve got to reverse course on that. I’ve advocated to get rid of value-based charges for car thefts."

Last year, Weiser, along with the entire Colorado State Senate, supported misdemeanor reform legislation, which altered dollar amounts for value-based penalties for auto theft. That law said that stealing any car worth less than $2,000 was a misdemeanor 1.

Weiser has questioned whether Kellner is prosecuting auto theft effectively in his judicial district, even though district attorneys aren’t in charge of any initial criminal investigation, police and sheriff's departments are. The state’s average “clearance” rate, or crimes solved rate, is only 7 percent for auto theft cases. That number has fallen even more for some law enforcement agencies as they struggle with staffing and violent crime upticks.

“What I can't do is do the job for district attorneys,” Weiser said, at a recent 9 News debate. “If district attorneys fail to prosecute car theft effectively in some communities because they're focusing on other things, that's their decision.”

But Kellner’s office has increased auto theft prosecutions in the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties. 

In 2019, they filed 469 cases and this year they’re on pace to file more than 760 cases, Kellner said.

Raynes, with the Colorado District Attorney’s Council, said proposed auto theft reform legislation could be introduced at the state legislature as soon as February. He is skeptical that just changing penalties will solve the state’s problem, though.

“If every car theft was changed to a felony, does that change the auto theft rate?” he said. “It’s part of the puzzle and it could help, but it won’t solve it alone.”

Donner is skeptical that adding more penalties - particularly the fuzzy math of class four felonies versus class fives versus misdemeanor ones - will do anything to deter auto thefts because she said most people don’t understand the state’s sentences anyway.

“It’s a million dollars every time you put 20 people in prison. How much does it cost to buy those steering wheel locks?” Donner said. “If we spend a couple of million dollars to put them in high theft neighborhoods, wouldn’t that be more effective in reducing crime?”