How much people are punished for stealing a car in Colorado no longer depends on how much the car is worth

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Lights on a police vehicle.

Colorado is changing how it punishes people for car theft, and will focus on the behavior of the offender instead of the value of the vehicle.

A new state law that took effect July 1 will bring harsher penalties for people who repeatedly steal cars, or use them to commit other crimes.

For repeat offenders — those who have been convicted of car theft at least twice before — prosecutors can now charge them with a Class 3 felony, punishable by between four and 12 years in prison. People who steal a car and damage it, take it out of state or use it to commit another crime, will face between two to six years in prison.

The law does allow for a lower penalty for joyriders, people who steal cars briefly and commit no other crimes with them.

“We heard a lot of concerns of: What if it’s less than 24 hours? What if it’s returned undamaged?” said GOP state Rep. Matt Soper, explaining why they kept the ability for prosecutors to treat some car thefts as a misdemeanor.

The bipartisan law was a response to criticism that Colorado’s previous approach to car theft was ineffectual and unfair.

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Under the prior law, the severity of the crime was based on the value of the vehicle. Stealing a car worth less than $2,000 was generally only a misdemeanor. Democratic state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger said it was clear that approach ignored the actual impact on victims.

“A crime is a crime,” said Zenzinger. “It doesn't matter if you're a moderate income person, a low income person —  if your car has been stolen, it's going to impact your life, and sometimes pretty dramatically.”

Colorado has earned a place of infamy for car thefts in recent years. The business-oriented think tank Common Sense Institute found that Colorado led the nation in car thefts in 2021 and averaged around 4,000 thefts a month for the first half of 2022. Car thefts have declined since then, according to Colorado State Patrol, which trumpeted the new law as a help to future enforcement.

Zenzinger and other lawmakers said they got involved in the issue after hearing from numerous constituents across the state about their own experiences with auto thefts and asking for stricter penalties.

“I was receiving emails about this almost daily,” she said. “Even my own vehicle, while it was not stolen, it was broken into. And I think when you become a victim of a crime like that, it really sends it home. When you realize, ‘it can happen to anybody. And it is happening!’”

The bill was supported unanimously in the state Senate but opposed by a handful of House Democrats, concerned that strengthening penalties could lead to more people with felonies on their criminal records without meaningfully reducing car thefts. They argued addressing the root causes of crime would have more impact.

“It’s a false set of options to suggest folks are asking for more criminalization, when we’re not giving them other options,” said Rep. Elisabeth Epps during a committee hearing on the bill. “This is a step in the wrong direction, and it’s a step that we’re going to be paying for for years to come.”

The new law was developed by the state’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Coalition and supported by a number of local governments and law enforcement organizations. It was opposed by the ACLU and criminal defense lawyers.