Auto Theft Laws in Colorado

Anyone who takes or exercises control over a motor vehicle without the owner’s authorization, or by threat or deception, is guilty of motor vehicle theft in Colorado.

Motor Vehicle

Colorado’s motor vehicle theft law defines a motor vehicle as “all vehicles of whatever description propelled by any power other than muscular, except vehicles running on rails.” (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-4-409 (1)(a).) This definition includes boats and aircraft, in addition to automobiles and trucks. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 19-1-901 (k).)

Levels of Motor Vehicle Theft

Colorado punishes this theft according to the seriousness of the crime, as explained below.

Aggravated motor vehicle theft in the first degree

Aggravated motor vehicle theft in the first degree is a felony in Colorado. A person may be convicted of aggravated motor vehicle theft in the first degree in Colorado if she knowingly obtains or exercises control over another’s motor vehicle without authorization or by threat or deception, and if the state proves that the person:

  • retained possession or control of the vehicle for more than 24 hours
  • attempted to or did alter or disguise the appearance of the vehicle
  • attempted to or did alter or remove the vehicle identification number (“VIN”)
  • used the vehicle in the commission of a crime other than a traffic offense
  • caused $500 or more of property damage (including to the vehicle itself) in the course of gaining or exercising control of the vehicle
  • caused bodily injury to another person while exercising control of the vehicle
  • removed the vehicle from the state for more than 12 hours, or
  • unlawfully attached or otherwise displayed license plates on the vehicle other than those officially issued for it.

(Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-4-409.)

For example, imagine a group of rowdy college seniors in Boulder who decide to “borrow” their housemate’s SUV to roadtrip to Vail for a weekend of spring skiing while the housemate is away. They decide not to clear it with him first. Harmless prank? Not exactly. That “prank” adds up to a felony in Colorado.

Aggravated motor vehicle theft in the first degree may include carjacking if the car is taken by force or threat.

Aggravated motor vehicle theft in the second degree

Aggravated motor vehicle theft in the second degree in Colorado is either a felony or a misdemeanor in Colorado, depending on the value of the stolen vehicle.

A person may be convicted of aggravated motor vehicle theft in the second degree in Colorado if she knowingly obtains or exercises control over another’s motor vehicle without authorization or by threat or deception and if none of the first degree factors listed above are proven. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-4-409.)

“Joyriding” (taking a car to drive briefly but with no intention of keeping it) may result in a conviction of aggravated motor vehicle theft in the second degree because it involves taking a car without authorization.

Defenses

Here are a few of the defenses a person charged with motor vehicle theft may raise.

Authorized Possession

Where a person charged with motor vehicle theft in Colorado can show that the owner of the vehicle authorized the defendant to use the vehicle, the defendant should be acquitted. However, if the defendant originally had the owner’s authorization to use the vehicle but used it for an unauthorized purpose (say, to commit a crime), for a longer period of time than authorized, or took the vehicle out of state when only authorized to use it in Colorado, the defense will fail.

Lack of Knowledge

The Colorado motor vehicle theft statute requires that the prosecution prove that the defendant “knowingly” took unauthorized possession or control of the vehicle. If the person charged reasonably believed that the owner had authorized use of the vehicle, she may be acquitted. For example, if one of the Boulder ski bums forged a note from the vehicle’s owner and the others believed it was a legitimate authorization to use the car, the ignorant friends might be able to claim lack of knowledge of unauthorized use.

How is Motor Vehicle Theft Punished in Colorado?

The level of punishment a person convicted of motor vehicle theft in Colorado faces depends upon both whether she is convicted of first or second degree aggravated motor vehicle theft and the value of the stolen vehicle.

Aggravated first degree vehicle theft

A person convicted of motor vehicle theft in the first degree is guilty of either a class 3 or class 4 felony in Colorado depending upon the value of the stolen vehicle. If the vehicle is valued at:

  • $20,000 or less, the person convicted is guilty of a class 3 felony and faces four to 12 years in prison, a fine of $3,000 to $750,000, or both
  • $20,000 or more, the person convicted is guilty of a class 4 felony and faces two to six years in prison, a fine of $2,000 to $500,000, or both.

And, regardless of the value of the vehicle, the convicted thief’s license is revoked. (Colo. Rev. Stat. 18-1.3-401.)

Aggravated second degree vehicle

A person convicted of motor vehicle theft in the second degree is guilty of a class 5 or class 6 felony, or a class 1 misdemeanor, depending on the value of the stolen vehicle. If the vehicle is valued at:

  • $20,000 or more, the person convicted is guilty of a class 5 felony and faces one to three years in prison, a fine of $1,000 to $100,000, or both,
  • $1,000 or more but less than $20,000, the person convicted is guilty of a class 6 felony faces 18 months to one year in prison, a fine of $1,000 to $100,000, or both,
  • less than $1,000, the person convicted is guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor faces six months to 18 months in prison, a fine of $ 500 to $5,000, or both.

And, regardless of the value of the vehicle, the convicted thief’s license is revoked. (Colo. Rev. Stat. 18-1.3-401.)

Consult an Attorney

If you or someone you know is charged with motor vehicle theft in Colorado, or if you have questions about the crime, consult with an attorney experienced in criminal defense law in the state.

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