Colorado DAs Sound Alarm on Car Thefts

An image of yellow police tape which reads “Crime Scene Do Not Cross” with a background that blurs out the ground.
Car thefts continue to climb in Colorado as district attorneys sound the alarm on the issue. / Photo by Kat Wilcox on Pexels.

Concerns are continuing to grow for many Colorado district attorneys as car thefts rise across the state.

The Colorado State Patrol reported a record high number of motor vehicle thefts in 2021 and that trend has continued into 2022 with 31,697 being disclosed by the CSP through September, which is a 16% increase from where the state was last year at that time.

But why is it happening and what can be done to prevent future car thefts? Colorado DAs spoke with Law Week about the issue and came up with some solutions.

In the 20th Judicial District, which includes Boulder County, reported auto thefts climbed dramatically from 2017 to 2021, with 1,164 being reported last year. This year, it’s starting to calm down. As of August 2022, 489 were reported, which is on pace for about 700 by the end of the year.

“Auto theft has been a very serious problem, it’s hurting a lot of people,” said 20th Judicial District Attorney Michael Dougherty, adding it’s gone up at a higher rate statewide than in Boulder County.

Dougherty said there is a mix of different things that can be done to curb the car theft trend including making sure law enforcement has the staffing and resources they need with the hope auto theft arrest rates increase.

According to the Common Sense Institute, a nonpartisan research group that recently did a study on car thefts in Colorado, the arrest rate for auto thefts was 9.4% in Colorado in 2022, down from 15.5% in 2019. 

Dougherty added law enforcement is stretched thin while other factors are playing a part in the increased crime including substance abuse, sentencing issues, the financial stress from the pandemic and public awareness.

Recently, Colorado’s Misdemeanor Reform bill went into effect reforming sentencing provisions for misdemeanors and petty offenses. Dougherty said the big change under second-degree aggravated motor vehicle theft is if the vehicle is valued at less than $2,000 and not kept for more than 24 hours or used in another crime, then theft of the car could be a class 1 misdemeanor.

“That leads me to what I hope and believe will be a change that’s coming … I would anticipate a proposal where we change motor vehicle theft from a value-based structure and look at all motor vehicles the same,” said Dougherty, who is also the co-chair of Colorado’s Sentencing Reform Task Force

Dougherty added value is different for each individual. For example, a less expensive car may hold more value to someone who is poor, compared to a wealthy person driving a Porsche.

On the western slope is the 21st Judicial District, which includes Mesa County and Grand Junction. As of September, there were 64 total arrests/active warrants for car thefts in Mesa County, which puts the county on pace to have its lowest figure in the last few years.  

Dan Rubinstein, the DA in the 21st Judicial District, who is also the president of the Colorado District Attorneys Council, reiterated what Dougherty said concerning auto theft being a value-based crime. 

“We’re going to look at whether auto theft is somewhat unique in that it’s probably likely that the vehicles that are worth less are going to have [more of an impact] on the person who owns them than the vehicles worth more,” Rubinstein said, adding prosecutors may also look at enhanced penalties for repeat offenders for auto thefts.

Rubinstein said one issue connected to property crimes during the pandemic was not putting too many people in a detention facility, which could lead to the spread of COVID-19, and keeping the space reserved for the most serious offenses.

“Those committing property crimes kind of got the word out on the street that there wasn’t a whole lot of consequences for property crimes or at least immediate consequences,” Rubinstein said.

John Kellner, the DA for the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe and Douglas counties, said the rate of car thefts is relatively low compared to much of the metro area.

“That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable,” Kellner said. “It’s certainly something that we’re seeing an increase in, we’re actually [on track to] filing more car theft cases than we did last year and last year was the highest in our recorded memory of the number of cases we had filed.”

Kellner added since the spike began, his office has seen judges hand down tougher sentences noting that the average sentence for car thefts increased from around 70 days in jail to about 130. 

Kellner echoed what other DAs told Law Week that car thefts need to be changed from a value-based system to level the playing field.

“I would like to see the legislature get rid of the value-based penalties,” Kellner said. “I would like to see all car thefts be a class 4 felony.”

Kellner continued, saying repeat offenders should be subject to a class 3 felony, which already exists, but that there should be a presumptive mandatory prison sentence. He added another thing that needs to be fixed is for judges to consider municipal convictions as well when evaluating prior offenses.

“If somebody steals a car and it goes to a municipal court rather than to a state court like the DAs deal with, that conviction should count towards increasing the penalties for repeat offenders; it doesn’t presently count,” Kellner said. 

As for why it’s going up, Kellner had some similar conclusions as the other DAs, adding drugs including fentanyl are another major problem. He said oftentimes, the police who catch people in a stolen vehicle report the suspect has fentanyl on them.

In the 4th Judicial District, covering El Paso and Teller counties, DA Michael Allen said the car theft rate in recent years isn’t as dramatic as other areas of Colorado, but it’s still an issue. Allen would like to see car theft convictions back away from a value-based crime pointing to the recent legislative change.

“Everybody knows a misdemeanor is less serious than a felony,” Allen said, adding they need to go back and fix the law. “I’m a big proponent of the idea that the value of the car stolen should not determine the level of the offense.”

Allen also believes drug use is a big reason for the rise in car thefts.

“We have seen those types of connections between fentanyl — generally, just drug distribution — and auto theft,” Allen said. “We also see people that are committing car thefts are also oftentimes willing to act in a violent manner.”

Allen said another important factor to look at is what police are dealing with across the state including not having as many officers as they used to. 

“The rate of arrests on these types of cases has dropped pretty significantly,” Allen said. “That also means that people are getting away with this at a higher level and that’s in my mind probably due to the impacts that law enforcement are facing. Almost every law enforcement agency that I know of is running at a deficit as far as the number of officers they have on the street. They just can’t fill their positions the way they used to.” 

The CSP noted that of the 31,697 vehicle thefts reported in 2022 through September, 29,341 were recovered, a 91% recovery rate.

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