Believing too little is being done to thwart auto-related crimes in Colorado, some towns take action

Tribune Content Agency

DENVER — Just as Roman Gutierrez was shaking off the first punch — his 1999 Subaru Outback wagon had been stolen last fall from his Westminster home — he received a second blow right to the gut.

“The ignition was all busted out,” Gutierrez said after police found his car a few days later not far away. “The mechanics at the shop said, ‘You’re missing something else underneath.’”

Not only had his car been swiped, but so had its catalytic converter. The vehicle was totaled.

“There’s only so much you can do besides taking the battery out of the car,” Gutierrez said, bemoaning the recent spike in auto thefts and catalytic converter thefts that has bled into just about every Colorado community.

Vehicle thefts in Westminster alone have exploded from 859 in 2020 to 1,259 last year.

But the misery around auto-related crimes goes further than just theft and this city of 115,000 is determined to do something. Earlier this month, Westminster passed on first reading four ordinances that would address street racing, joy-riding, car parts theft and quicker restitution for victims.

In the big picture, the measures would bring the prosecution for several auto-related crimes in-house — to municipal court — sparing victims a trip to Brighton in Adams County or Golden in Jefferson County, depending on what side of the county line the offense occurred.

“It allows us to better serve our residents who have been victims of these issues,” said Westminster Police Chief Norm Haubert. “It allows us the flexibility to charge these in municipal court.”

Mayor Pro Tem David DeMott said the ultimate goal is to “hold people accountable and show Westminster is not the city to break the law in.”

“Last year in response to a rise in crime and frustration of residents while considering reduced ability to hold folks accountable from changes at the state level, council requested the city attorney, city manager and police to work on these issues,” he said.

Foremost among Westminster’s new measures — they’ll need another vote from council on June 12 to pass — is one that takes street racing head-on. The new regulation would allow the city to categorize street racing as a “nuisance act,” allowing police to impound the offending vehicle.

That additional power could save lives if a racer is taken off the road before a fatal collision occurs. In late 2021, a 21-year-old woman was killed when her car was struck in Westminster by a man racing against another driver on Sheridan Boulevard. Last month, the man who hit the woman’s car was sentenced to six years behind bars.

“Our emails are full of concern about speed expositions and racing,” Councilman Rich Seymour said during a council meeting May 22. “Our residents have been crying for a tool — this allows us to take this close to home and to help residents…”

In terms of catalytic converter thefts, Westminster’s new ordinances would create an offense for stealing auto parts up to $5,000 in value that could be dealt with in municipal court, including converters and electric vehicle batteries. The city saw 467 auto parts theft cases in 2022.

DeMott said he heard of several churchgoers in Westminster having their catalytic converters cut out from underneath their vehicles while they worshipped at service. Municipal prosecutions would have to comply with a 90-day speedy trial deadline.

“The measures are very important as they deal with health and safety and keeping our residents and their property safe,” he said.

Lakewood Cmdr. John Pickard, who is part of the Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force, said Colorado recently got a shot of good news with a report showing that auto thefts statewide in the first three months of 2023 were down 21% from the same period in 2022. But the pace of vehicle heists in Colorado remains high, Pickard said, with roughly 70 cars being stolen in the metro area every day.

He praised Westminster’s efforts to try and adjudicate auto-related crimes to the extent the city can.

“Holding offenders accountable for their actions is an important piece of the effort to reduce crime,” Pickard said. “Crime becomes prevalent when the target of the crime is soft, the risk of getting caught is low, and if caught, the consequences for those actions are minimized. We have seen a trend in Colorado where the consequences for property crimes have been minimized.”

Specifically, he cited a state law passed by the legislature nearly a decade ago that lowered the penalties for motor vehicle thefts and linked the severity of punishment to the stolen vehicle’s value as problematic.

In a report issued by the Common Sense Institute last month, Colorado went from 18th in the nation in per capita auto thefts in 2014 to first in 2020, and remained in that unenviable position the following two years.

“In 2022, the motor vehicle theft rate reached an all-time high of 801.2 thefts per 100,000 residents,” the report said. “This is up 233% from the 2014 rate of 240.6 per 100,000 residents.”

This month, the legislature passed a bill to make all auto thefts felony crimes, regardless of the value of the vehicle. The new law awaits the signature of Gov. Jared Polis.

In the meantime, cities like Westminster feel the need to enact their own measures, Pickard said.

“Local jurisdictions then feel compelled to take action into their own hands to hopefully make an impact with the consequences part,” he said.

Westminster isn’t alone. Last year, Aurora passed new mandatory minimums for car theft in Colorado’s third-largest city. In the nine months leading up to Aurora’s new auto theft ordinance, there were more than 5,700 cars stolen in the city. Since the law took effect last August, that number has dropped to just over 4,400 — a more than 23% drop over a similar time period.

Thornton also made it possible last year to prosecute some auto-related crimes in municipal court.

Gutierrez, the Westminster auto theft victim, said his city’s new measures may dissuade some would-be criminals from acting out, but he reserves a healthy dose of skepticism.

“It will be a little bit of a deterrent, but the guys who do this for a living? They’re not going to care,” he said. “Criminals don’t give a damn about laws.”