DENVER – People convicted of stealing cars in Colorado could face stiffer penalties if preliminary recommendations from a sentencing task force are adopted.
The Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) will vote on the sentencing recommendations on Jan. 27.
If approved, the recommendations would likely be included in a legislative package state lawmakers will consider this year.
Last year, the National Insurance Crime Bureau ranked Colorado at the top of its list of places in the U.S. where vehicles are most likely to be stolen.
In September, Gov. Jared Polis directed the CCJJ to come up with ways to increase penalties for auto theft.
Task force releases recommendations for enhancing auto theft penalties in Colorado
“I am particularly interested in having the Commission examine changes to auto theft sentencing, so that the repeat offenders and the most egregious perpetrators cannot easily return to communities to further inflict harm on the people of Colorado,” Polis wrote in a letter to the commission. “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.”
A sentencing task force has spent the last few months studying the issue.
On Friday, Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty presented their preliminary recommendations during a commission meeting.
“I think what we’ve done here is put together a really thoughtful proposal that would allow prosecutors and law enforcement to do a better job in holding individuals accountable for stealing cars,” said Dougherty.
Critics say current law lets too many thieves off easy, especially if they steal a car with a lower value, which in some cases is a misdemeanor violation as opposed to a felony.
The new recommendations call for getting rid of the car theft value threshold and would treat all auto thefts as felonies, regardless of the car’s value.
Under the recommendations, someone with two prior convictions would face a first-degree charge, which would be a Class 3 Felony.
A second-degree charge of auto theft would be a Class 4 Felony. It’s intended for cases where aggravators are present.
Dougherty said aggravators include situations when a vehicle is not returned within 24 hours; someone attempts to disguise or alter a stolen vehicle or its VIN; the license plate is changed; bodily harm has occurred; or the car is used to commit another crime.
A third-degree charge of auto theft would be a Class 5 Felony. It’s intended for cases where no aggravators are present.
“All very serious offenses,” said Dougherty.
Punishment upon conviction could include prison time, anywhere from one to 12 years, depending on the felony classification.
“I think under this structure of class three four or five felonies, these allow the courts to impose very significant sentences,” said Dougherty.
In addition, the recommendations call for the creation of a new misdemeanor charge for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, also known as joyriding.
Dougherty explained this for situations in which it is difficult to prove that someone behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle knew the vehicle was stolen.
Someone may be charged with this if the stolen car is returned within 24 hours, no damage occurred and no other crimes were committed.
Dougherty said someone could only be convicted once for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.
“If someone ever had a second unauthorized use a motor vehicle, that would immediately become a Class 5 Felony,” said Dougherty. “In other words, if someone’s taking grandma’s car for a joyride, and they’re prosecuted, convicted of unauthorized use, the second time they’re doing it would be more consistent with someone who’s stealing cars, not just having mistakenly took grandmother’s car for a joyride.”
A conviction for joyriding would also count as a prior conviction should someone be charged for auto theft in the future.
If the recommendations become law, it would be a reversal for the state, which adopted some lighter sentences for auto theft in recent years.
Dougherty acknowledged the new and tougher recommendations would not stop auto thefts completely.
But he says it would be a step in the right direction.
“This elemental change would go a long way to allowing law enforcement and prosecutors to more effectively pursue and hold auto thieves accountable,” said Dougherty.
Speaking to the commission Friday, Polis didn’t comment specifically on the recommendations, but he thanked the commissioners for their work.
“I’m really excited to see the legislation that’s generated from your work,” Polis said, adding that sentencing would only be part of a package of proposals his team is working on.
Dougherty said the task force approved the recommendations with 15 members voting in favor and two members abstaining.
The full commission will vote on the recommendations at its meeting on Jan. 27.
Public comment will also be taken at the meeting.
If approved, Dougherty says legislators are ready to put the recommendations in a bill for state lawmakers to consider this session.
The Colorado District Attorney’s Council has been pushing for tougher auto theft penalties.
“We hope to have a finalized concept that garners strong bi-partisan support in the legislature, is endorsed by the CCJJ, and meets with the expectations of the Governor’s stated priorities on this important public safety issue,” said Elizabeth Schrack, communications manager for the Council. “It should be noted that the CCJJ started work on this revamping the auto theft statutes more than a year ago as part of the larger sentencing reform project and the state’s district attorneys started drafting their ideas on the topic over the summer.”
Preliminary car theft data released Monday by the Colorado Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force shows more than 41,000 vehicles were reported stolen in Colorado last year, a 10% increase from the previous year.