Minnesota sentencing commission hikes penalty for carjacking

Armed carjacking in Minneapolis
Minneapolis police at the scene of an armed carjacking and kidnapping at 21st Avenue and Bryant Avenue North.
Tim Nelson | MPR News 2015

Updated: July 28, 10:40 a.m. | Posted: July 27, 4:56 p.m.

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission voted 7-2 Thursday to adopt tougher penalties for those convicted of carjacking.

The DFL-led Legislature this year approved a change to state law that more clearly defines carjacking as a crime, with penalties set to vary if an alleged offender hurts someone, carries a weapon or implies that they have a weapon in commission of an act. 

Penalties were set to mirror those already outlined in state law for cases of robbery, with an aggravated robbery offense carrying the longest potential sentence. 

But after receiving thousands of public comments, the sentencing guidelines commission voted to boost the penalties for those convicted of first-degree carjacking to make them line up with sentences of third-degree murder and first-degree aggravated assault convictions.

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The vote means someone with a criminal history convicted of first-degree carjacking could face a presumptive prison sentence of up to 13 years. 

“The public clearly wants more than putting a new label on an existing offense and existing penalty,” said Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Michelle Larkin. “We have to give this crime teeth so it’s more than just a label.”

Disagreements over the policy change echoed those that played out earlier this year at the Capitol. Larkin and other members of the commission said having a vehicle taken, particularly in a forceful way, can cause more lasting harm than being robbed of a purse, phone or other item.

Adding the new crime is a step forward, she said, but  stiffer penalties would deter those who consider carjacking.

“There’s no similar means of fix when you lose the primary source of transportation for you and your family,” Larkin said.

Other members said they agreed that carjacking can cause trauma for victims but they weren’t convinced that they should break with penalties assigned by the Legislature. And they raised questions about whether a harsher penalty would deter people from the crime.

“I’m not so convinced that we can draw that connection between that action and reduction (in offenses),” Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said. “I wish there was more clarity.”

Schnell later voted in support of the tougher sentencing guideline.

Republican lawmakers called for the change in the days before the commission’s meeting. And the bill’s author, Sen. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, said she’d heard from Minnesotans prior to the law’s passage calling for a heftier sentence. Seeberger said it was important to define carjacking separately from aggravated robbery.

“This is an important first step, I think, in defining the crime that has become a problem, to sending the message that as a Legislature we’re seeing this activity that needs to be a crime. It is a crime. We made it a crime, and I think that in and of itself has significance,” Seeberger told the panel last week.

State lawmakers could revise the penalties when they return to St. Paul in February.