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.