State lawmakers are taking up a bill aimed at ensuring equal justice under the law for all victims of auto theft.
Last year, 41,000 cars were stolen in Colorado. That’s up 150% since 2019.
Kristie Houchen is among the victims: “What kind of person steals a car from a Children’s Hospital?”
Houchen works as a pharmacy tech at Children’s Health Pavilion in Aurora, where she says her car was stolen twice in three months, in the middle of the day, from the employee parking lot.
She happened to glance out the window as a thief made off with the vehicle the first time.
“I watched it pull out of the parking lot, only realized it because I recognized the license plate,” she said. “It’s just frustrating.”
She’s hardly alone in her frustration. On average, 84 cars are stolen in the Denver metro area every day.
Democratic State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger says it is the number one complaint she hears about from constituents: “Coloradans are crying out for help and demanding we take action.”
Zenzinger is among four lawmakers – two democrats and two republicans – sponsoring a bill that would make all auto thefts a felony. Right now, it’s a misdemeanor to steal a car if the vehicle is worth less than $2,000.
“This simply doesn’t make sense,” says Zenzinger. “It shouldn’t matter if the car is a brand new BMW worth more than most folks make in a year or a 20-year-old Prius like mine.”
Republican State Rep. Matt Soper, co-sponsor of the bill, agrees, saying, “we should treat poor and wealthy victims the same under the law.”
Under the legislation, all car thefts would be a felony but penalties would be based on the suspect’s criminal history instead of the car’s value. First-time offenders would face up to three years in prison. Thieves who use the stolen vehicle to commit another crime could spend up to six years behind bars and a repeat offender could serve up to 12 years.
Houchen is glad to see lawmakers taking action. “I think it will definitely deter more people,” she said.
While her car was recovered both times, she says, it cost her $1,000 in repairs, and that’s just the financial toll.
“It’s been hard and I don’t want other people to suffer with this,” she said.
The bill does not change penalties for juveniles who steal cars and it makes an exception for so-called joyriding. If a car is taken for less than 24 hours and returned undamaged, it would be a misdemeanor.
Police and prosecutors support the legislation but say it’s just a start. They called for bond reform to keep repeat car thieves from being released, along with additional funding for patrol officers and license plate readers.
Houchen says she found her car using a tracking device but police were so busy it took them three days to pick up her vehicle and, she says, they didn’t even call her. She saw on the tracker that her car was in an impound lot.