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'A message to criminals': Auto theft bill advances in Colorado Senate

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Joe Mueller

(The Center Square) – A bill making all auto thefts felonies was praised by law enforcement officers, prosecuting attorneys, mayors and victims before it was voted out of Colorado’s Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

Senate Bill 23-097 also would eliminate penalties based on the value of the stolen vehicle. It now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“A colleague said to me earlier today this was a message bill,” said Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, who co-sponsored the legislation. “We do message bills. In some sense, every bill we pass has a message. It’s a message about what we believe. … This bill is a message to criminals.”

Current law states theft of a vehicle worth $2,000 or less is a misdemeanor. The proposed bill would eliminate penalties based on the value of the vehicle or vehicles stolen.

“It’s a provision of our state law that just doesn’t make sense,” said co-sponsor Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada.

Several others testified in agreement with Zenzinger.

“So if a motor vehicle thief steals the 2022 BMW, he or she can be charged with a high level felony,” Brian Mason, district attorney in Colorado's 17th Judicial Circuit, testified. “But if have they steal a 2003 Honda Accord, they can only be charged with a misdemeanor. This law discriminates against the poor, and it's a terrible inequity.”

Arvada Police Chief Ed Brady testified all Coloradans are affected by auto theft.

“Even if you personally have not had your car stolen, everyone's car insurance rates will increase to deal with the financial impacts of car thefts,” Brady testified. “This hurts us all.”

Mitch Morrissey of the Common Sense Institute testified that Colorado started to “go soft on auto theft” in 2014 and again in 2019, resulting in increases in stolen vehicles.

“I believe that this bill will have the opposite impact,” Morrissey said. “And the reason it will have the opposite impact is that we're basically making auto theft a crime in the state of Colorado again. It is a serious crime. It is a crime that occurs at a very high volume by a very few number of people. And I think that if you address those people in a way that prevents them from stealing cars, then it will have an impact.”

The bill’s fiscal note said prison operating costs will increase by $12 million during a five-year period if the bill becomes law.

“I don't believe you're going to see the prison filled with auto thieves,” Morrissey said. “I believe judges will take these offenses, those arrested and charged, more seriously. As the district attorney would say, they’ll work out something that prevents them from stealing cars as opposed to having to fill those limited cells that we have with auto thieves.”

Only one person testified against the bill, stating it wouldn’t be effective without the judicial system carrying out the law.

“We have had decades of watching what happens when we increase penalties and increase offense classifications,” said Tristan Gorman of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. “Incarceration does go up, but it is not a general deterrent effect on the offense itself. What would be a general deterrent effect on this offense is if people thought they were going to be arrested and prosecuted for it.”