Mitch Morrissey

When it comes to motor vehicle theft, Colorado ranks No. 1 in the nation. The really bad news, the numbers for 2022 have put us on pace to repeat the notorious title.

This month, Common Sense Institute (CSI) released a new study detailing the latest statistics on motor vehicle theft in Colorado. The numbers are more than breathtaking. They are devastating to many Coloradans and should serve as a siren call to elected officials and voters alike.

Consider that CSI’s 2021 crime report revealed Colorado’s motor vehicle theft rate had climbed 32%, ranking it the highest in the nation. In the first six months of 2022, the theft rate increased another 17.2%. At the current rate of 4,007 per month, car thefts are on pace to exceed 48,000 for the year, an all-time high for the Centennial state.

So far in 2022, four Colorado cities rank in the top ten in the United States for motor vehicle thefts. Among the list of 185 cities across the country, Denver ranked No. 2, Aurora ranked No. 3, Westminster ranked No. 8 and Pueblo ranked No. 9. These four cities combined account for 53.3% of the vehicles stolen statewide in the first quarter of 2022.

In this category, Colorado stands alone: There are four states with more than one city in the top 25 cities for motor vehicle theft, Colorado has seven.

The single worst place for car theft in Colorado? Denver International Airport (DIA). More cars are stolen from DIA than any other location in Colorado and account for nearly 3% of all motor vehicles stolen statewide.

If those statistics are not enough to convince you of the enormity of the problem, consider the financial impact. The 2022 total estimated value of stolen vehicles is up to $848 million and is fast approaching the $1 billion mark. When you factor in the additional costs in terms of lost time, inconvenience, and insurance, the cost of this crime is even higher.

Your livelihood

There are leaders in this state who do not think motor vehicle theft is a big deal. They are wrong. When someone steals your car, they steal your livelihood.

According to CSI, 85% of the cars being targeted cost $25,000 or less and 63.5% are valued at less than $15,000. These are not cars being driven by the governor or our congressmen. These are cars being driven by every day, hardworking Coloradans.

If you live in a rural area, you may not have access to a bus or other transportation options. A stolen car means you lose your job, you cannot take your kids to the doctor, and you cannot get to the grocery store. It is a devastating reality for those who can least afford it.

Also infuriating is an all too common response from some of our elected officials, “insurance will cover it.” Even our attorney general suggested drivers should get special insurance to cover the theft of catalytic converters. It is simply outrageous. More theft means higher insurance rates and that costs people money.

That is, of course, if insurance is even available. This summer, one insurance company announced that it would no longer offer coverage on new policies in the Denver area on certain models because of the “alarming rate by which these vehicles are getting stolen in the Denver area.”

Colorado, with the highest rate of motor vehicle theft in the nation, is considered to be a “hot spot” by insurance companies. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s 2020 hot spot report, the Denver Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) which includes Denver, Aurora and Lakewood, was the third-ranked hot spot and the Pueblo MSA was ranked seventh. Accordingly, insurance companies will adjust premiums upwards for all consumers in these zones, regardless of whether they have had a vehicle stolen.

No minor matter

Turning a blind eye to the problem or treating it as anything less than a big deal should not be an option for our elected officials. Car theft is a big deal. It is at the heart of the crime tsunami sweeping our state. The number of secondary offenses related to motor vehicle theft has increased more than six-fold since 2008. Drug crimes involving motor vehicle theft have increased 1,110%, violent crimes involving motor vehicle theft 521%, and property crimes involving motor vehicle theft 583%.

The impact of motor vehicle theft can be financially catastrophic for victims, the cost of car insurance is rising for everyone, and it is a crime that sparks secondary offenses that are devastating to victims.

The single most devasting finding of the CSI study, the criminals are winning. Car thieves are outpacing law enforcement. The impressive increase in the arrest rate of car thieves (13.4%) was exceeded by the increase in the theft rate (17.2%).

The deafening silence on this issue at the state level is astounding and should unleash the fury of every single Coloradan.

To date, state lawmakers simply do not have an answer. They have spent every year since 2014 making excuses for offenders and tossing out reasons why criminals should never have to spend a day in jail on the front end of an allegation or the backend of a conviction.

In 2014, Colorado’s criminal laws were changed to decrease the penalties for stealing motor vehicles. Coincidently, the rise in auto thefts began escalating around that same year. Since then, state lawmakers have passed bill after bill — such as person recognizance or PR bonds — that has made Colorado an increasingly permissive environment for car thieves. In 2021, the same year Colorado achieved the rank of No. 1, a bill entitled “Misdemeanor Reform” also known as SB 271 made it a misdemeanor to steal a car valued $2,000 or less. It used to be a felony to steal a car valued $1,000 or more. The bill was passed by state lawmakers, supported by the attorney general and signed by the governor.

In their 2020 report on motor vehicle theft, the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority, a division of the Colorado Department of Safety, stated that, “…motor vehicle suspects operated with virtual impunity.” Based on the findings in this report, it appears that Colorado has failed to implement effective policies to change that reality.

Our criminal justice system is not working. The policies implemented by lawmakers are failing.

Revolving door

According to Commander Mike Greenwell with the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force (C-MATT), “97% of the people who have been arrested in the last three years for auto theft have multiple arrests for auto theft.”

Colorado has created a revolving door for criminals. Nearly as fast as they are arrested, they are returned to the street on a PR bond to commit another crime. There is no shortage of anecdotal stories from members of law enforcement. For instance, one DNA expert recounted a story about a single criminal who has been tied to 30 different car thefts. Yes 30, 3-0. Every time he has been arrested, he is released right back out on the street. And guess what, he steals another car.

Despite the failure of state lawmakers, cities are stepping up. The City of Aurora, for instance, recently passed an ordinance requiring mandatory sentences for car thefts.

Good for them but a checkerboard of laws and penalties around auto theft in cities across this state is not the way to reverse the crime rate across the Colorado. Instead, we should we take this issue up at the state level.

We are at a critical point.

Theft rates continue to rise, and Colorado maintains its unenviable distinction as the No. 1 state in America for car theft. It is time for change. Now.

Read the full report and recommendations for change at www.commonsenseinstituteco.org.

Mitch Morrissey is a criminal justice fellow at Common Sense Institute. He is a former district attorney in Denver. Common Sense Institute (CSI) is a non-partisan research organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of Colorado’s economy. CSI’s mission is to examine the fiscal impacts of policies, initiatives, and proposed laws so that Coloradans are educated and informed on issues impacting their lives.

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