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It’s unfortunate that car theft is still running rampant in many parts of the country. Colorado, for example, is the No. 1 state for auto theft, and lawmakers are doing what they can to curtail that. Their solution is to make car theft a felony, which may deter some unscrupulous thieves, but will it really help? Also, could your state be next?

Colorado is trying to make all auto theft felonies, but some lawmakers disagree

A car thief breaks into a vehicle. Once stolen, a car could get a branded or salvage title.
A car thief breaks into a vehicle | Andia via Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The auto theft rates in Colorado are staggering. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the theft rate in Colorado has increased by 144% from 2011 to 2020, meaning there are approximately 524.3 thefts per 100,000 people. That’s more than double the national rate of 256. Also, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation estimates that auto thefts have risen by 46% from 2020 to 2022. So it’s safe to say that something needs to be done.

However, that “something,” in the eyes of lawmakers, is a bill that will increase the penalties for auto theft. Colorado Politics reports that “under the bill, auto theft would be a class 5 felony at the baseline. It would become a class 4 felony if the thief alters the vehicle’s license plates, leaves the state, causes $1,000 or more in damages to the vehicle, injures someone, or uses the vehicle in another crime. It would become a class 3 felony if the thief has two prior convictions for auto theft.”

That’s a pretty harsh penalty, but will it really deter thieves from stealing cars? Some of the lawmakers that voted against the bill don’t think so. Considering there were 40,000 vehicles stolen in Colorado in 2022 and only 3,900 arrests were made, it’s clear that the problem outweighs the solution by a large margin.

In that case, it’s likely that increasing the penalty for theft may not be enough of a threat to deter thieves.

What is the penalty for stealing a car in the U.S.?

A car thief with their hands up
A car thief with their hands up | Getty Images

The current penalty for stealing a car in most states varies depending on the type of theft that is committed. There are two different types of auto theft:

  • Car theft: The car is stolen when the owner is present. This means that the owner has to give up the car with force or fear.
  • Grand theft auto: This auto theft occurs when the car owner is not present. That means the vehicle is parked on the street or in a lot.

In most states, the penalty for car theft is a felony, while the penalty for grand theft auto is a misdemeanor. The bill being passed in Colorado penalizes both types of theft with a felony charge, hence why it’s so controversial.

However, some states, like California, walk the line regarding penalties for car theft. If the prosecutors in a grand theft auto case in California file it as a felony, the maximum penalty could be one to three years in prison. But if it’s charged as a misdemeanor, it typically means one year in jail.

Could your state be next?

Broken window after car theft
A car with broken glass | Getty Images

As it stands, the penalties for car theft and grand theft auto vary by state. For example, Michigan enforces a misdemeanor penalty if the car is worth $1,000 or less. But if the car is worth over $1,000 and up to $20,000, it’s a felony. However, the theft rate in Michigan is 212 per 100,000 residents, which is less than half of the rate in Colorado.

If the new bill is passed, it will take effect on July 1. After that, we’ll see if the car theft rates decrease in Colorado for the remainder of the year. If so, it’s possible that other states could follow suit. However, only time will tell.