Motor Vehicle Theft: Additional Community Impacts and Next Steps
You might hear reform advocates talking about motor vehicle theft as just a property crime, but the reality is far more complex. In the first 8 months of 2022, in addition to filing over 500 cases that involve a motor vehicle theft charge, we learned the following:
- 76% of defendants were charged with something other than motor vehicle theft.
- Nearly one in 10 defendants were charged with a felony for vehicular eluding. This means that they were actively running from the police in their vehicle. This is an enormous risk to public safety.
- One in 20 were charged with leaving the scene of an accident.
- More than 1 in 10 were charged with resisting arrest or obstructing a peace officer.
- 1 in 6 defendants were charged with some type of identity theft related charge.
- 1 in 7 defendants were charged with some other type of theft.
- 1 in 5 defendants were charged with misdemeanor drug possession.
- My office filed counts related to robbery, burglary, murder, attempted murder, assaults, kidnapping, organized crime, DUI, child abuse, and virtually every type of crime you can think of, connected to motor vehicle theft. This is not just isolated to vehicle thefts.
The legislature has outlined the purposes of sentencing in the criminal code to include, among other things, to prevent crime and promote respect for the law by providing an effective deterrent, to punish a convicted offender, and to promote acceptance of responsibility and accountability by offenders and healing for victims and the community.
In response to what we see as a rapidly escalating trend in motor vehicle theft and associated crimes, my office has pursued more aggressive sentences on these cases both to punish repeat offenders and to act as a deterrent to those who would continue to commit these crimes. That isn’t a change that just happens overnight, but we are beginning to see a change in sentences in our judicial district as a result of these efforts.
The charts below show a comparison of Motor Vehicle Theft sentences in 2020 compared to what we’ve seen so far in the first half of 2022. While there is still a substantial population receiving a sentence to probation where they can engage in things like drug treatment, we are also seeing a significant expansion in the percentage of defendants getting sentenced to prison and community corrections. In large part, those are sentences imposed when people have already been sentenced to other treatment interventions that haven’t been successful.
One reason my office is looking more closely at longer incarceration sentences on these cases is that the success rate on probation doesn’t appear to be on the same positive track as the majority of our cases. Our metrics on sentencing include information on recidivism rates for non-incarcerative sentences, and for motor vehicle theft defendants, that rate is consistently two-to-three times higher than it is for crime as a whole.
We know this isn’t a local problem – it’s true across Colorado. The data tells us this: car thieves are often prolific repeat offenders who cross jurisdictional boundaries and commit other crimes in stolen cars. Very few are the joy-riding teenager in need of a small course correction in their lives. For these reasons, prosecutors in the 18th have sought, and judges have granted, tougher sentences to punish offenders and deter other would-be criminals, which may be why car theft rates in Arapahoe and Douglas remain the lowest in the Denver metro area.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Looking at the top-level charge filed in motor vehicle theft cases, over 60% of them are class 5 or class 6 felonies - the lowest two classifications of felonies we have. In one-third of the cases, a more serious felony offense will overshadow the car theft, including charges like drug distribution and attempted murder.
Last year the legislature passed SB 21-271, which reduced penalties for theft of the lowest-value vehicles.
This data highlights an inherent contradiction. The vast majority of cars that are stolen are not rare, exotic sports cars. Over 85% of car thefts involve a car valued at less than $25,000. Under Colorado law, the consequences for stealing a vehicle are different depending on how much the vehicle is worth. First degree aggravated motor vehicle theft is a class 5 felony for a car worth $15,000, a class 4 felony if the car is worth $50,000, and a class 3 felony if the car is worth over $100,000. This means that families that can least afford to have their vehicle stolen – families that might not have a 2nd car sitting in the garage or top-shelf insurance coverage to help with a rental – see less severe consequences for the defendants who victimized them.
While lowering penalties for crime has seemingly emboldened criminals to commit more crime, this legislative session we should reverse course. I hope you will join me in encouraging our legislators to treat all car thieves the same regardless of how much the vehicle is worth. To better deter would-be car thieves, all car theft should be a class 4 felony, and for repeat offenders, it should increase to a class 3 felony with mandatory prison time. These steps will not be an instant-fix, but they will help us stem the tide of motor vehicle theft and hold people accountable for their crime.
Targeting the Rise in Motor Vehicle Theft
During the COVID-19 Pandemic, even as fewer cars were on the road, a pattern began to emerge. By 2021, when many jails in the metro area were still turning away arrestees on lower dollar bond amounts - particularly for "property crime", the massive wave of motor vehicle theft had grown into a full-blown epidemic across the entire state.
My office seeks to better understand this increase and how we can help stop the spike in motor vehicle theft. Over the next several weeks, we will examine several aspects of motor vehicle theft, and how my office has responded to this increase in crime to help curtail this disturbing trend.
Keep in mind, the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority notes that “73% of adult car thieves are charged with additional offenses such as drug crimes, armed robbery, home invasion and identity theft.” In this review we are focusing only on the motor vehicle theft component of these crimes even though motor vehicle theft is often not the only charge filed in these cases.
The Initial Report
Data from the Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force indicates that roughly 100 cars are stolen every day in Colorado. Unfortunately, not all of those stolen vehicles are recovered, and certainly not every stolen car leads to an arrest or criminal charges. In 2021, over 3,500 vehicles were reported stolen in the 18th Judicial District. Less than one in five led to a criminal charge being filed.
Our office works closely to support our law enforcement partners, but it is impossible for agencies to keep up with the volume and unrealistic to think that they can solve every case. This is especially true when, for safety reasons, an officer generally cannot pursue a fleeing suspect simply because they are in a stolen vehicle. As a result, it is critical that our office maximize the public safety and rehabilitative returns for those cases that do make their way into court.
The First Court Hearing: Setting Bond
Once someone is arrested, in most cases they can post the bond that is set by the level of the offense (sometimes called a "bond schedule") before they ever see a judge. For those that do not post the bond, the bond hearing is our office's first opportunity to get involved in the court process. Colorado law presumes that anyone who is arrested for a non-capital offense is eligible for release pending trial, so for each case, a judge hears bond recommendations from the prosecution and the defense and sets the conditions of bond.
We've heard anecdotal evidence about repeat car thieves or those with lengthy criminal histories, but to better understand what was happening at these bond hearings, our office performed an internal review of 61 cases that were filed by our office in January of 2022, which included at least one charge for aggravated motor vehicle theft. Juvenile criminal history was excluded from this analysis, as were juvenile offenders.
In addition to the criminal history information above, our review of the 61 motor vehicle theft cases filed in January of 2022 showed us the following additional details:
Defendants averaged 5 prior misdemeanor convictions
Defendants averaged more than 3 prior felony convictions
Defendants averaged more than 2 other pending cases
More than half of defendants had a separate prior or pending case involving motor vehicle theft
80% were on some form of supervision already - either on bond for a pending case, on probation, parole, or serving some other sentence at the time their new crime was committed.
Some law enforcement leaders suggest that reductions in the frequency of personal recognizance (PR) bonds would help solve this crisis. On a PR bond, a defendant is released from jail by promising to appear and abide by conditions set by the judge, rather than posting a traditional monetary bond or working with a bondsman. When 3 out of every 4 defendants charged with aggravated motor vehicle theft have at least one other pending case, we agree that there is a problem with the frequency these individuals are being released during the course of their case.
However, by and large, that doesn’t appear to be an issue in our judicial district. In our review of these 61 defendants charged with motor vehicle theft in January of this year, just 16% received PR bonds from the judge. To be sure, we don’t get everything right all the time. While that may seem like a low percentage, in the context of the extensive criminal history data that accompanies that statistic, that is largely appropriate to do our part to ensure community safety. This statistic generally tracks for the defendants with limited or no felony criminal history, or who do not have other pending cases.
Having a cash/surety bond instead of a PR bond doesn’t guarantee that a defendant will stay in custody and it doesn’t guarantee that they won’t commit additional crimes, but it does raise the stakes and incentivize compliance with bond conditions that always include a requirement that no new crimes be committed.
Criminal History On The Rise Since 2020
While our internal review of January 2022 cases is concerning, it is a snapshot in time. Taking a more broad view of data from 2020 to 2022, on cases where motor vehicle theft was the top count, we've seen a noteworthy increase in the presence of criminal history.
This review includes both felony and misdemeanor criminal history, and only reflects partial-year data for 2022, but shows a clear increase since 2020 for defendants with criminal history. This data is also consistent with the broader metric found on our Defendant Characteristics page.
Not A Local Problem
Statewide data tells us that rising car theft is not a problem limited to our jurisdiction, and the defendants we see in court are not limited to those people who live within the 18th Judicial District. In fact, more than half of the defendants we charge with stealing cars in the 18th come from outside the borders of our jurisdiction.
My office performed an internal review based on the home address and zip code information for defendants who had an aggravated motor vehicle theft charge. This review is based on the home address as gathered by law enforcement at the time of arrest. This analysis revealed that just 41.3% of defendants who are charged in the 18th Judicial District actually live in the 18th Judicial District. This data, coupled with our knowledge that most motor vehicle theft defendants have extensive criminal history and cases pending in other jurisdictions, underscores that reversing the car theft epidemic will also require a collaborative, multi-jurisdictional approach to hold these defendants accountable.
While this review provides some insight into the escalating criminal behavior and cross-jurisdictional nature of motor vehicle theft, it is not the end of the analysis. In the coming weeks, my office will share more of what we learn about additional charges that are often filed along with motor vehicle theft, and examine the plea and sentence outcomes we are seeing in court, and share more about how we are working hard to help fight the increase in crime in our neighborhoods.
Public Data Dashboards in the 18th
Welcome to the 18th Judicial District Public Data Dashboards. Being open and transparent is one of District Attorney John Kellner’s CORE values, and this tool will make more information available to the public about what we do on an ongoing basis in an interactive manner.
To the best of our ability, the information presented here is useful and reliable, but it is important to acknowledge some limitations: The data is only as good as the data that exists, and that always involves human input and automated calculations. We expect and acknowledge that, on the individual case level, there will be inaccuracies.
Regarding race and ethnicity: Ideally, race and ethnicity data would be based on voluntary self-identification, but the source of this information is varied and may come from law enforcement, the courts, or self-identification. Further complicating matters, the state court system doesn’t have a data field to track ethnicity. We will continue to work with our partners to develop better ways to present this information accurately, but are providing the information we have understanding the limitations.
If you are seeking additional information about a specific case, you can request** public records from the court,** or** request additional record from our office here**. Please remember that our ability to share information or comment on a pending case remains limited by the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct, and specifically by Rule 3.6 and Rule 3.8.If you have questions or comments about this project, or have ideas about additional data points you would like to see included, please submit those comments here.
Update for 2022:
The dashboards below are valuable tools, but they come from slightly different sources of data than information elsewhere on this site. In the interest of providing consistent information to the public, we will be deactivating the dashboards below on December 1, 2022, as most of the information is available in other formats on this site. We will continue to work on expanding the information we provide to the public in the coming months.
You can view any of the dashboards below in full screen for a closer look at the data.
Dashboard 1 – Snapshot: The Past Year
This includes information on the number of cases filed, cases resolved, the number of days to resolution, and the average number of court appearances before resolution across all four counties in the 18th Judicial District.
Dashboard 2 – Case Filings
Here you will find information on the number of cases filed by case type (Traffic, Misdemeanor, Juvenile, and Criminal case filings) over the last couple of years, along with a list of the cases filed in the past 30 days.
Dashboard 3 – Case Dispositions
Roughly 1 out of every 3 cases our office handles results something other than a plea of guilty or a finding of guilty at trial. This dashboard presents information about the types of resolutions entered on a case in four categories: Acquitted, Deferred Judgment, Dismissed, and Found Guilty.
Dashboard 4 – Sentence Outcome
The vast majority of cases in the 18th Judicial District involve a sentence focused on treatment and rehabilitation, rather than a sentence to prison. This dashboard gives information about the types of sentences at are imposed on cases in our jurisdiction.
Dashboard 5 – List of Sentences
For several years our office has provided quarterly data regarding sentences to prison. This expands on that effort to include a list of all the sentences that have been imposed in the selected time period, along with information on race, ethnicity, and gender. As discussed above and explained in more detail on this link, we have concerns about the accuracy of the data, but believe that transparency and honest conversations about these issues are critical. We want to engage in those conversations rather than hiding behind concerns about data accuracy.