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Targeting the Rise in Motor Vehicle Theft

By John Kellner · 09-08-2022

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.

Next Steps

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.