Motor vehicle theft, aggravated motor vehicle theft, and grand theft auto are common terms used to describe the theft of a motor vehicle. In Colorado, the definition of “Motor Vehicles” include all vehicles propelled or powered by any method except by means of muscle. So, although items like bicycles and horse carriages are not motor vehicles since they are powered by muscle, here is a list of motor vehicles that would qualify as motor vehicles in Colorado: passenger car, passenger truck, automobile, sport utility vehicle, bus, semi-truck & trailer, motorcycle, motor home, motor coach, recreational vehicle (RV), snow mobile, motor scooter, an all terrain vehicle (ATV or four wheeler). Motor vehicles do not include vehicles that run on rail.
Nationwide in the US in 2005, there were an estimated 1.2 million motor vehicle thefts, or approximately 416.7 motor vehicles stolen for every 100,000 inhabitants (see Wikipedia).
Some common methods used by criminals to steal motor vehicles include:
Parked Vehicles: Normally when a parked vehicle is stolen, the suspect has planned the theft and is usually looking for a particular type of vehicle. This can be a vehicle that the suspect knows is easy to steal, the suspect is familiar with the vehicle, or a vehicle that is valuable either as is or by selling the parts (parting out). The suspect may also look for a vehicle that is parked in an un-secured area, in the dark or otherwise unattended.
When a vehicle is parked the suspect usually does not have keys to the vehicle unless the owner has left the keys in the vehicle. Without the car keys, the suspect must break into the vehicle. This is normally done by forcing a window down, breaking a window, or picking the lock. Normally when the suspect must force a window down or break a window they will choose to break a back window. Cops are able to detect stolen vehicles by observing windows halfway down or the window appearing to be rolled down. If a vehicle has a window down in the cold, this may indicate the vehicle is stolen.
Once the suspect has entered the vehicle they may be able to start the vehicle by hotwiring the vehicle, breaking the ignition lock, or otherwise compromising the electronics or mechanics of the vehicle. In some situations a sophisticated suspect maybe able to tow the vehicle with another vehicle equipped for such towing.
Vehicles left Running: In this situation the vehicle owner will start their vehicle and leave it running unattended, so that the vehicle can warm up. This is more common in areas of the country that experience cold weather. In Colorado, many vehicles are stolen because the owner is merely warming the vehicle up, the owner starts the vehicle and goes back into their home to finish coffee or finish getting ready for work. Many states have made it illegal to leave a car running including Colorado.
Another situation that occurs is when the owner is making a quick stop to run into a convenience store, fast food, dry cleaner, etc. This is considered an opportunity crime. Many times the suspect did not plan on stealing a vehicle, but made the decision once they saw the car running.
One of the unfortunate situations of the vehicle left running is when a child is in the vehicle. Although the suspect may not have intended to take the child, the child is now involved in a dangerous situation.
Carjacking: Carjacking occurs when the vehicle is taken from the owner while the owner is present. This occurs many times at intersections when the vehicle owner is stopped. The suspect or suspects force the driver out (or to move over) and a suspect then begins to drive the vehicle. This is a very serious situation because often weapons are used and the car owner may be harmed.
Other vehicle thefts. Vehicles can be stolen many other ways. For example, a child may steal their parents’ car because the keys are left in the house. Likewise, a roommate, girlfriend or boyfriend may have access to the keys merely because they live with the owner. Thefts can also occur at a mechanics shop, valet parking, car wash, or other places an owner may leave a car.
Identity Theft: Another concern involved with stolen vehicles is identity theft. Identity theft occurs when a suspect takes the personal information of another and uses that information to gain access to financial accounts, credit accounts, or other means to gain access to the owner’s property. Because most vehicles contain personal information on the owner, the stolen vehicle suspect also has this information. See our Colorado Criminal Defense Guide article explaining Identity Theft.
Other concerns: Other crimes that may occur as a result of a stolen vehicle are burglaries and theft of personal items. Many vehicles that are stolen may have a garage door remote or give the suspect access to the owner’s home. Likewise, personal property in the vehicle is often removed and sold on the street or to pawn shops.