Aggravated motor vehicle (auto) theft in Colorado is when a person “knowingly obtains or exercises control over the motor vehicle of another without authorization or by threat or deception.” Under CRS 18-4-409, sentencing can range from 6 months in jail to 12 years in state prison.
The language of section 18-4-409 states that:
(1) As used in this section, unless the context otherwise requires:
(a) “Motor vehicle” means all vehicles of whatever description propelled by any power other than muscular, except vehicles running on rails.
(b) “Vehicle identification number” means the serial number placed upon the motor vehicle by the manufacturer thereof or assigned to the motor vehicle by the department of revenue.
(2) A person commits aggravated motor vehicle theft in the first degree if he or she knowingly obtains or exercises control over the motor vehicle of another without authorization or by threat or deception and:
(a) Retains possession or control of the motor vehicle for more than twenty-four hours; or
(b) Attempts to alter or disguise or alters or disguises the appearance of the motor vehicle; or
(c) Attempts to alter or remove or alters or removes the vehicle identification number; or
(d) Uses the motor vehicle in the commission of a crime other than a traffic offense; or
(e) Causes five hundred dollars or more property damage, including but not limited to property damage to the motor vehicle involved, in the course of obtaining control over or in the exercise of control of the motor vehicle; or
(f) Causes bodily injury to another person while he or she is in the exercise of control of the motor vehicle; or
(g) Removes the motor vehicle from this state for a period of time in excess of twelve hours; or
(h) Unlawfully attaches or otherwise displays in or upon the motor vehicle license plates other than those officially issued for the motor vehicle.
There are two degrees of aggravated auto theft. First-degree is more serious. Second-degree is less serious.
First-degree aggravated auto theft occurs if the defendant both steals the car and either:
- Keeps the vehicle for more than a day or takes it out of Colorado for more than a half a day;
- Use the vehicle to commit a crime, injure someone with it, or cause more than $500 worth of damage with it; or
- Attempts to alter or disguise the vehicle, VIN, or license plates
Second-degree aggravated auto theft is stealing a car without the above three factors.
First-degree aggravated automobile theft is always a felony. Depending on the value of the vehicle and the defendant’s criminal history, penalties include:
- 1 – 12 years in Colorado State Prison, and/or
- $1,000 – $750,000 in fines
Second-degree aggravated automobile theft is almost always a felony. Depending on the value of the vehicle, penalties include:
- 1 – 3 years in prison, and/or
- $1,000 – $100,000 in fines
Second-degree aggravated automobile theft is a misdemeanor only when:
- The vehicle is worth less than $2,000, and
- The defendant has no more than one prior auto-theft conviction
The misdemeanor penalties are:
- Up to 364 days in jail, and/or
- Up to $1,000 in fines
There are many potential defenses to aggravated motor vehicle theft criminal charges. Three examples include:
- The defendant owned the car;
- The defendant believed he/she had permission to take the car; or
- The police committed misconduct
Below our Denver Colorado criminal defense lawyers discuss:
- 1. How does Colorado law define aggravated motor vehicle theft?
- 2. What are the penalties under CRS 18-4-409?
- 3. What are common defenses to auto theft?
- 4. Can the criminal record be sealed?
- 5. Related Colorado offenses
1. How does Colorado law define aggravated motor vehicle theft?
Aggravated auto theft in Colorado occurs when a person knowingly steals another person’s or company’s vehicle. It does not matter whether the alleged thief uses threats or deception to obtain it or whether he/she simply takes it without permission.
As discussed below, aggravated theft of a motor vehicle can be first- or second-degree depending on the severity of the case. In some states, the crime of aggravated motor vehicle theft is known as grand theft auto. But in Colorado, it is always referred to as aggravated motor vehicle theft.
Additionally, if a car is stolen in one jurisdiction but recovered in another, the defendant may be prosecuted in:
- The jurisdiction where the theft occurred;
- Any jurisdiction through which the automobile was operated or transported; or
- The jurisdiction in which the automobile was recovered
Note that aggravated motor vehicle theft – like many crimes – requires both a mens rea (culpable mental state) and an actus reus (an action). In this case, the mens rea is knowing, and the actus reus is taking the car without authorization or by threats or deception.1
In 2020 alone, Colorado saw an increase in auto thefts of 55% over 2019 with 27,895 vehicles reported stolen.2
1.1. First-degree aggravated motor vehicle theft
First-degree aggravated auto theft has two elements:
- The defendant knowingly obtains or exercises control over another’s motor vehicle without authorization or by threat or deception; AND
- The defendant either:
- Retains possession or control of the vehicle for more than 24 hours; or
- Attempts to or does alter or disguise the appearance of the motor vehicle; or
- Attempts to or does remove or alter the vehicle identification number (VIN); or
- Uses the motor vehicle in the commission of a crime other than a traffic offense; or
- Causes $500 or more worth of property damage; or
- Causes bodily injury to another person; or
- Removes the vehicle from the state of Colorado for more than 12 hours; or
- Unlawfully attaches or displays license plates other than those officially issued for the vehicle
The “knowingly” element applies to both the defendant’s physical control over the automobile as well as his/her awareness that he/she is acting without authorization from the owner. And all that matters is what the defendant subjectively knew, not what a reasonable person would objectively know under the defendant’s circumstances.
Meanwhile, “without authorization” means “that the owner of the property, or a person in possession of the property with the owner’s consent, has not given the actor permission to exercise control over the property.”3
Examples of first-degree aggravated motor vehicle theft include:
- Stealing a car and selling it;
- Borrowing a car without permission and getting into a wreck;
- Driving one’s parents’ car without permission and seriously injuring a pedestrian;
- Stealing a car and using it as a getaway car; or
- Committing a carjacking and taking the vehicle to another state to sell it
1.2. Second-degree aggravated motor vehicle theft
Second-degree aggravated auto theft is knowingly obtaining or exercising control over another’s motor vehicle without authorization or by threat or deception. And none of the factors in the above subsection apply.4
Examples of second-degree aggravated motor vehicle theft include:
- Being a valet or parking attendant and driving the car around town without permission;
- Borrowing someone else’s car without permission for a joyride and returning it the next day;
- Using one’s parents’ car without permission to go on a date; or
- Temporarily refusing to give back a car that has been temporarily entrusted to his or her care
2. What are the penalties under CRS 18-4-409?
The punishments for aggravated motor vehicle theft depend on the value of the motor vehicle and the defendant’s past criminal record (if any).
Aggravated Vehicle Theft
(based on the value of the stolen vehicle)*
Less than $20,000
$20,000 to less than $100,000
$100,000 or higher
Third auto theft conviction (any value)
Class 3 felony
$20,000 or higher
Class 5 felony:
$2,000 to less than $20,000
Less than $2,000
See our related article, When is theft charged as a felony in Colorado?
3. What are common defenses to auto theft?
Seven defenses that may get Colorado aggravated auto theft charges completely dropped include:
- The vehicle belonged to the defendant;
- Someone else took the vehicle;
- The defendant had permission to drive the vehicle (shown by testimony, emails, etc.);
- The defendant did not know he/she lacked the owner’s permission to borrow the car (“mistake of fact”);
- The car owner falsely accused the defendant;
- The police entrapped the defendant, who was not predisposed to car theft. Therefore, the defendant never would have stolen the car but for the police’s pressure; or
- The police discovered the car through an illegal search and seizure
Note that it is an affirmative defense that the defendant had a good faith belief that she/she could have the car. This means that the defendant admits to possessing the car. But the possession was justified and therefore not a crime.
Meanwhile, five defenses that may get a first-degree auto theft charge lessened to a second-degree charge are that:
- The defendant did not keep the vehicle for more than 24 hours and did not take it out of state for more than 12 hours;
- No one was injured;
- The defendant did not alter the vehicle in any way;
- The vehicle was not used to commit a crime; or
- Any damage costs less than $500 to repair6
4. Can the criminal record be sealed?
Yes, unless the conviction was for a class 3 felony (first-degree aggravated car theft of $100,000 or higher). Otherwise, a CRS 18-4-409 conviction is sealable three years after the case ends. Note that any cases that get dismissed (meaning there is no conviction) can be sealed right away.7
5. Related Colorado offenses
5.1. Theft of Motor Vehicle Parts
Like it sounds, theft of motor vehicle parts (CRS 42-5-104) is removing, detaching, or taking any part from an automobile with criminal intent. It can be a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the items stolen.
5.2. Felony Grand Theft
Felony grand theft (CRS 18-4-401(2)) is intentionally taking another person’s property, which is valued at $2,000 or higher. The extent of the fines and prison time depends on the value of the items stolen.
5.3. Theft by Receiving Stolen Property
Receiving stolen property (CRS 18-4-404) is knowingly obtaining control over items that have been stolen. It is punished the same as theft: It can be a petty offense, a misdemeanor, or a felony depending on the value of the stolen items that the defendant received.
Arrested in Colorado on a theft crime? Contact our Denver criminal defense lawyers. Our criminal law firm will fight to get the charges reduced or dismissed. We defend clients throughout the state, including Denver, Greeley, Colorado Springs, Aurora, Lakewood, Jefferson County, Douglas County, Boulder, Adams County, Arapahoe County, and more.
Simply fill out the confidential form on this page. Or call us. Consultations with our criminal defense attorneys are free.
Colorado Legal Defense Group
4047 Tejon Street
Denver, CO 80211
In California? See our article on grand theft auto law (PC 487d1).
In Nevada? See our article on grand larceny of a motor vehicle (NRS 205.228).
- CRS 18-4-409 (“(5)Consistent with section 18-1-202, if the theft of a motor vehicle occurs in one jurisdiction and the motor vehicle is recovered in another jurisdiction, the offender may be tried in the jurisdiction where the theft occurred, in any jurisdiction through which the motor vehicle was operated or transported, or in the jurisdiction in which the motor vehicle was recovered.“); People v. Andrews, (1981) 632 P.2d 1012; People v. Stellabotte,(Court of Appeals, 2016) 421 P.3d 1164 (“The culpable mental state, “knowingly,” applies not only to a defendant’s exercise of control over the vehicle, but also to his or her awareness of lack of authority. “); see, e.g., Jessica Snouwaert, Man wanted for stealing cars arrested mid-theft in Monument, police say, Colorado Springs Gazette (April 21, 2020)(citing the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority-Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force).
- Laura Studley, “Auto theft was crazy:” As people drove less during the 2020 pandemic, car thieves preyed on parked cars, Denver Post (February 8, 2021).
- See note 1; “knowingly” is a “stand alone” element and therefore modifies all successive elements in the statute. See, e.g., Colorado Jury Instructions COLJI 4-4:19 – AGGRAVATED MOTOR VEHICLE THEFT IN THE FIRST DEGREE (RETAINED) The elements of the crime of aggravated motor vehicle theft in the first degree (retained) are 1. That the defendant, 2. in the State of Colorado, at or about the date and place charged, 3. knowingly, 4. obtained or exercised control over the motor vehicle of another, 5. without authorization, or by threat or deception, and 6. retained possession or control of the motor vehicle for more than twenty--four hours. [7. and that the defendant’s conduct was not legally authorized by the affirmative defense[s] in Instruction[s] ___.] After considering all the evidence, if you decide the prosecution has proven each of the elements beyond a reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant guilty of aggravated motor vehicle theft in the first degree (retained). After considering all the evidence, if you decide the prosecution has failed to prove any one or more of the elements beyond a reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant not guilty of aggravated motor vehicle theft in the first degree (retained); People v. Edmonds, (1978) 195 Colo. 358, 578 P.2d 655.
- CRS 18-4-409 (“(4)A person commits aggravated motor vehicle theft in the second degree if he or she knowingly obtains or exercises control over the motor vehicle of another without authorization or by threat or deception and if none of the aggravating factors in subsection (2) of this section are present. Aggravated motor vehicle theft in the second degree is a: (a)Class 5 felony if the value of the motor vehicle or motor vehicles involved is twenty thousand dollars or more; (b)Class 6 felony if the value of the motor vehicle or motor vehicles involved is one thousand dollars or more but less than twenty thousand dollars; (c)Class 1 misdemeanor if the value of the motor vehicle or motor vehicles involved is less than one thousand dollars.“)
- See, e.g., People v. Marquez, (Colo. App. 2004) 107 P.3d 993; CRS 42-2-125; CRS 18-4-409 (” (3)Aggravated motor vehicle theft in the first degree is a: (a)Class 5 felony if the value of the motor vehicle or motor vehicles involved is less than twenty thousand dollars; (a.5)Class 4 felony if the value of the motor vehicle or motor vehicles involved is twenty thousand dollars or more but less than one hundred thousand dollars; (b)Class 3 felony if the value of the motor vehicle or motor vehicles involved is more than one hundred thousand dollars or if the defendant has twice previously been convicted or adjudicated of charges separately brought and tried either in this state or elsewhere of an offense involving theft of a motor vehicle under the laws of this state, any other state, the United States, or any territory subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.“). HB21-1314 (2021). Prior to March 1, 2022, 2nd-degree aggravated motor vehicle of less than $1,000 carried 6 to 18 months in jail and/or up to $500 to $5,000 in fines; and 2nd-degree aggravated motor vehicle theft of $1,000 to less than $20,000 was a class 6 felony, carrying 1 to 1 ½ years in prison (with 1 year of mandatory parole), and/or $1,000 – $100,000. SB21-271.
- CRS 18-1-504(1)(a); See also People v. Harper, (Colo. App. 2008) 205 P.3d 452.
- Colorado Revised Statutes 24-72.