Colorado Government

Proposed Bill Would Make Car Theft in Colorado a Felony Regardless of Vehicle Value

Car theft remains a huge issue in Colorado.
Car theft remains a huge issue in Colorado. Photo by Bastian Pudill on Unsplash
Currently, if a car is worth less than $2,000 and it gets stolen, Colorado law considers the crime to be a misdemeanor rather than a felony. In other words, the person who owns the car isn’t any less screwed than someone who drives a brand-new $70,000 Audi, but the law treats them differently.

State Senator Rachel Zenzinger wants to change that by introducing a Motor Vehicle Theft and Unauthorized Use bill on January 30.

“We are eliminating the car's value as the sole factor in determining whether it's a felony or a misdemeanor, because that doesn't make sense,” she says. “A theft is a theft. A car is a car, and the impact to the victim is, in my mind, even greater if the value was less than $2,000.”

Instead of car value determining whether the crime is a felony or a misdemeanor, other factors — such as whether a person or property was damaged during the theft, or if the stolen car was used to carry out a secondary crime — would go toward determining the level of felony.

Zenzinger's bill would mean no more misdemeanors for those who steal junkers.

“I had a lot of people kind of roll their eyes and say, ‘Oh, sure, like there's a $2,000 car out there,’” Zenzinger says. “And I was like, well, no, they're all over the place, because vehicles depreciate, and if you don't have a car payment and if it's still working, people tend to hang on to those cars.”

There was a time in her own life when, as a single mom, Zenzinger drove a car that was worth less than $2,000. It still worked just fine, and she benefited from not having to make that monthly payment.

“Had that car been stolen, it would have been huge — not just an inconvenience, but it would have been life-altering,” she says. “I don't have family in the area. I don't know how I would get my kids to school. I wouldn't have the ability to get to my job. I don't have a second car.”

More than 40,000 cars were stolen in Colorado in 2022, including many in Denver, and Zenzinger says she constantly hears concerns from her constituents about auto theft.

“It makes such a difference to your life if you have a car or not, especially if you're in a situation where you’re dependent on it to take your kid to child care, or to get to work, or for doctor's appointments,” she adds.

Zenzinger spent the summer talking with law enforcement officers, city council members and Colorado 1st Judicial District Attorney Alexis King about what could be done. More often than not, she learned, law enforcement officials tell victims that there is not much hope of finding the perpetrator or the car, so the disparity in how victims are legally viewed depending on the value of their cars has been a real problem.

Additionally, Zenzinger’s legislation would add escalation of sentencing and charging for people who are found to have stolen a car more than once. Under the law as it stands, repetition of car theft doesn’t make the penalties any more severe.

The legislation has attracted bipartisan support in both chambers, with Senator Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, co-sponsoring the bill in the Senate. In the House, representatives Shannon Bird and Matt Soper, one from each major party, have signed on.

“I’m pretty fortunate that there are a number of people that have wanted to work on this issue,” Zenzinger says, adding that Senator Gardner's experience as a lawyer and his familiarity with the issue have been invaluable.

The Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, part of the Colorado Department of Safety, also supports the legislation, which has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee — of which Gardner is a member — and is awaiting a hearing.

“This isn't going to solve everything,” Zenzinger says. “It's not going to solve the root cause of auto theft, but we do think that it's going to be a good tool. … We're just really focused on making sure that the victims of car theft are treated equally under the law.”

At the very least, the legal update could take the sting of elitism out of an already distressing situation for those whose cars get snatched.
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire

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