(COLORADO) – Colorado continues to lead the nation in auto thefts, and now, lawmakers are introducing a bill aimed at cracking down on this crime. One Colorado Springs resident whose car was stolen with her dog still inside, says she thinks this bill could have prevented it from happening.

In December 2022, Gabriela Hernandez walked out of a store into everyone’s worst nightmare. Her car was nowhere to be seen. The same car she left her English bulldog, Bruno, inside.

“My first worry was my dog. Like, what happened to him.” Hernandez said she was frantic. “I only went into the store about 10-15 minutes, tops. When I came out, the car was gone.”

Even though Hernandez said she had the keys, her car had been on auto start. This somehow enabled the driver to get away with the vehicle, to a random location. Hernandez said police found her vehicle parked in the back of an apartment building, with her front license plate removed.

Community members like Hernandez, lawmakers, and local law enforcement, alike, are all vouching for the auto theft protection bill proposed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Monday.

Currently, people caught stealing cars valued at less than $2,000 are charged with a misdemeanor. Senate Bill 97, makes all vehicle thefts a felony. Meaning, car thieves would be taken to jail, no matter the value of the car.

“When you look at communities like Pueblo, where we have a lot of people that are economically disadvantaged, they are the ones that suffer because their crime is a misdemeanor, whereas somebody that owns a, you know, a Maserati, it’s a felony,” said Chris Noeller, Chief of Police, Pueblo Police Department.

Car theft is an issue that directly affects southern Colorado. Pueblo ranking in one of the top ten cities in the country for motor vehicle theft. This year alone, in 2023, Pueblo Police Chief Noeller reported over 100 vehicle thefts, just for the month of January.

“This legislation… will allow us to make those that are stealing the vehicles, held responsible for those crimes…and then reduce the theft that way,” said Noeller.

Most of the people committing auto theft are recidivists, according to the Colorado Springs Police Department Public Information Officer, Robert Tornabene.

“You don’t just wake up and say, hey, I want to steal a car today,” said Tornabene. “These people are doing it over and over again…As we start arresting those people for stealing those vehicles, then the impact should have a ripple effect.”

If this bill had been in place, Hernandez says her auto and dog theft might have never happened to her. She said that the crime had been calculated, and assumed that the person who stole her car, had done it before.

“It seems like the whole thing [auto theft] is set up a certain way and they [car thieves] do it constantly.” Hernandez, says that if the thief had been put in jail when they presumably did it before, “It could have been prevented,” she said about her own theft.

After an extensive search, through the use of social media, her dog Bruno was returned by a family, that say they were unrelated to the theft. Hernandez’s car was recovered the day after the theft, but Bruno, spent days away from his owner before he was found.

The two were left traumatized by the incident.

“Bruno was really stressed out…for one to two weeks after I got him back, he would panic over people who had a hoodie over their head,” Hernandez recalls. “The violation of your property or your private space… definitely affects you and you kind of get paranoid,” said Hernandez, saying even though she is thankful to have gotten Bruno and her car back, her mental health was significantly impacted, after the theft.

As this bill heads into the legislative process, remember to take all precautions with your car. Some tips from local law enforcement:

  • Lock your doors, and never leave your car unlocked
  • Remove keys from your vehicle
  • ‘Puffing’ – leaving your car running idle unattended, is illegal in Colorado unless your vehicle has a remote start with the proper security enhancements
  • Close windows all the way
  • Park in well-lit areas

“I always heard of stories, but I never in my mind thought it would happen to me,” said Hernandez.