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Minnesota panel sets stiffer penalties for carjackers

Minnesota panel places carjacking at the same level as third-degree murder in the sentencing guidelines grid.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota courts will be handing down more prison time for carjacking than for traditional armed robbery.

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission decided to rank first-degree carjacking at a severity level nine in the state's sentencing grid, which carries a presumed range of seven years to 13 years in prison, depending on the defendant's criminal history. Judges will have the authority to go as low as six years and as high as 15 years.

Commission member Michelle Larkin, a member of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, made the motion to raise the severity level of carjacking above robbery.

"We have to take into account the impact on victims," Larkin told colleagues on the panel during Thursday's meeting.

"Loss of one’s vehicle may eliminate daily transportation to work, to school, to daycare, to the grocery store, to medical appointments, to our children’s activities, to care for our elderly relatives."

Until this year, the crime of "carjacking" technically didn't exist in the state's criminal codes. That crime was prosecuted as an aggravated robbery, which is stealing something under the threat of violence or physical harm.  Pointing a gun at a robbery victim automatically raises the crime from robbery to aggravated robbery.

When lawmakers created the new offense of carjacking they put the maximum sentence at 20 years, at the same level as aggravated robbery.  Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican and ranking minority member on the Senate Public Safety Committee, thought carjacking should be ranked higher on the sentencing grid.

"Quite honestly, it does trigger a more serious crime than simple robbery or even an aggravated robbery with the use of a weapon," Limmer told KARE Friday. 

"It’s the chase, it’s the escape the person participates in that makes it a much more serious crime and it endangers the public. And when that vehicle is gone you just can’t replace it in a matter of a couple hours, especially if you’re in lower income. "

RELATED: Carjacking sentences under debate

As of last week, the sentencing guidelines commission was leaning toward making carjacking a level eight crime, the same as armed robbery. Level eight crimes presume a prison term ranging from four years to nine years. Judges have the option to go as low as three years and as high as 10 years.

But on Thursday the group voted 7-2 in favor of adopting Larkin's motion, to set the crime at a severity level of nine on the grid.

Commission member Cathryn Middlebrook, the chief appellate defense attorney, voted against the motion. She said losing a phone or a laptop to an armed robber can be equally or more devastating than losing a car.

"We’re putting that on the same level as some murders and manslaughter offenses which to me don’t equal a carjacking first degree. That just doesn’t sit well at all with me."

The panel's chair, Kelly Lyn Mitchell, also voted against setting carjacking at level 9. She said anytime someone's robbed at gunpoint it's traumatizing, whether they're losing a car or something else of value.

Sen. Limmer said he believes the commission majority's decision will be a deterrent to would-be carjackers.

"I believe since it’s kind of a group crime the word will get out that’s gonna hit the streets pretty hard I think. Hopefully we can get this calmed down and stopped, but it all depends on prosecutors, and it all depends on judges."

A wave of carjackings took hold in the Twin Cities metro areas during the pandemic, with new records being set every year since 2019. There were 655 such crimes in Minneapolis during 2021 alone.

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