AURORA | Being caught and convicted of misdemeanor car theft in Aurora could cost culprits mandatory time in jail under a city lawmaker’s proposal, though it’s unclear how many thieves the law would actually impact.
“As local elected leaders, we should do everything in our power to keep our residents safe, and I believe that having the toughest laws on motor vehicle theft will be a deterrent,” Councilmember Dustin Zvonek, the measure’s sponsor, said while presenting his plan to Aurora’s Public Safety, Courts and Civil Service Policy Committee.
At the same time, the city’s chief public defender and others questioned the details of Zvonek’s proposal, including the efficacy of mandatory minimum sentences, which have fallen out of favor for many crimes in recent years.
The sentencing changes will also only impact an unknown number of misdemeanor motor vehicle theft cases, which would exclude thefts of cars worth $2,000 or more as well as crimes that satisfy any one of a list of felony criteria under state law.
Motor vehicle theft is on the rise in the city, with quarterly FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data indicating a 25.9% increase in incidents between the first quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022, from 1,475 reported thefts to 1,857.
Auto thefts rose by 35.4% in Denver over the same period and by 6.6% in Colorado Springs. After the first quarter of the year, Aurora’s theft rate was about 4.7 per 1,000 residents, compared to 5.4 thefts per 1,000 Denver residents, and 1.4 per 1,000 Colorado Springs residents.
Police agencies across the state have been battling an upward trend in motor vehicle thefts for years, with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation reporting a 31.3% increase in auto thefts statewide between 2020 and 2021.
Zvonek’s plan would establish new sentencing guidelines in Aurora’s Municipal Court, which is empowered to try misdemeanor motor vehicle theft cases. First-time offenders would be sentenced to at least 60 days in jail, and defendants who were previously convicted of motor vehicle theft or “a similar offense” under city rules or the laws of any state would be sentenced to at least 120 days.
Pete Schulte of the City Attorney’s Office said Zvonek had spoken to local sheriffs about the potential impacts of the change on county jails. Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown said he had spoken with Zvonek and supported his proposal and that their jail could accommodate incoming prisoners. Representatives from Adams and Douglas counties were not immediately available for comment.
Under Colorado law, factors that may elevate motor vehicle theft to a felony, placing the crime beyond of the reach of the muni court and Zvonek’s proposed sentencing changes, include:
- Stealing a vehicle worth $2,000 or more.
- Using a stolen vehicle to commit any crime other than a traffic offense.
- Holding onto a stolen vehicle for more than 24 hours.
- Disguising or trying to disguise the appearance of a stolen vehicle.
- Causing $500 or more in property damage, including any damage caused during the theft as well as damage caused to the vehicle or using the vehicle.
- Removing or trying to remove a vehicle identification number.
- Causing bodily injury to another person while in control of the vehicle.
- Leaving the state with the vehicle for more than 12 hours.
- Attaching or displaying license plates other than those officially issued for the vehicle.
It is unclear how often motor vehicle thefts are charged in Aurora Municipal Court; the city was not immediately able to provide information about how many auto theft cases the court has handled in the past year, and Zvonek did not respond to a message asking what information he had about the topic.
Failure to appear in court would also be punished by a minimum 10 days’ in jail. A companion resolution would further direct court and city officials to prepare a comprehensive plan for addressing car thefts, including reimbursing theft victims for the cost of retrieving their vehicles from the impound lot used by the city.
According to data reported by APD and compiled by CBI, in 2021, 4,236 vehicles were recovered out of a total of 4,781 stolen, and city staffers have said that M&M Towing & Impound collects around $975,000 per year in fees from crime victims.
The city manager would also be directed to lobby the state legislature in 2023 to “reverse course on reducing penalties for certain crimes and to increase penalties for motor vehicle theft and other offenses.”
“As APD continues to make this a focus, as the word gets out that we are going to be tougher than any other city in the state of Colorado on car theft, we’re not going to be dealing with as much car theft in the city of Aurora as a result,” Zvonek said Thursday.
Chief public defender Doug Wilson said the law could be the first example of mandatory minimum sentences for first offenders ever implemented by a municipality. He and Councilmember Juan Marcano both disputed the usefulness of mandatory minimum sentences for deterring crime.
“There really isn’t any data to support a general deterrence theory when it comes to mandatory minimums,” Wilson said. “Going back to when mandatory minimums started, what we actually saw was a significant increase in people losing their right to a trial, which is kind of a fundamental criminal justice issue … and it did not deter.”
“Every single thing that I have read about mandatory minimums shows that they do not work,” Marcano said. “They end up spending a tremendous amount of public resources to incarcerate and prosecute these folks, and you still have crime.”
Wilson also said the sentencing change would likely increase the number of jury trials handled by public defenders, and expressed concerns about adding a mandatory minimum for failure to appear in court, which he said could be leveraged against others besides defendants the way Zvonek’s proposal was written.
“There may be a reason why someone didn’t get to court, anything from being in custody to being in the hospital,” Wilson said.
“I’m not sure it’s constitutional without a mens rea attached,” he added, referring to the legal concept of intending to commit a crime or awareness that one’s actions constitute a crime.
Zvonek and police officials pushed back, saying escalating prison sentences used to be imposed more regularly for stealing cars in the city, leading to decreases in the total number of thefts.
Interim Aurora police chief Dan Oates, whose first stint as head of the department lasted from 2005 to 2014, said an “understanding” existed between the city and local judges that functionally resembled a mandatory minimum policy and which led to a decrease in auto thefts specifically between 2006 and 2014.
“This in fact was something we did in my early tenure here, and it was effective. We had a very significant reduction in auto theft,” he said.
The nine-year period saw a nationwide decline in property crimes and violent crimes tracked by the FBI, including a statewide and local drop in auto thefts. In 2006, APD reported 2,051 motor vehicle theft incidents to the FBI, compared to 1,087 incidents in 2014.
Over the same time period, the number of thefts reported by Denver police fell from 6,416 incidents to 3,429 incidents, and the total number of thefts reported by agencies across Colorado fell from 17,639 incidents to 12,540 incidents.
Zvonek alleged without citing a specific source of crime data that Aurora is the city most impacted today by motor vehicle thefts in Colorado, which he and police say tops the list of states struggling with auto theft.
“Colorado has gone from on the bottom end to the very first, and Aurora’s number one among number one,” Zvonek said.
Zvonek said he planned to bring the sentencing ordinance to the council at their June 27 regular meeting, skipping the typical middle step of a study session.
He told Marcano that he was open to having a conversation about changes to the ordinance, including possibly modifying the penalty for first-time offenders or moving up the sunset date, which was then proposed to be sometime in 2024, when the council could re-evaluate its effectiveness.
He also said he would speak with the City Attorney’s Office regarding Wilson’s concerns around the constitutionality of the mandatory minimum sentence for failure to appear.
“Something’s got to give,” Schulte said. “Whether it’s with the judges, whether it’s with the jails, whatever it is, I think the purpose of the legislation is to make it known: don’t be stealing cars in the City of Aurora.”