Republicans, Democrats debate severity of carjacking sentences

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission will vote Thursday on whether to set penalties for carjacking above that of aggravated robbery.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, introduced a bill during the 2023 legislative session that would have created a defined carjacking criminal statute with a mandatory minimum sentence of two to six years, depending on the severity of the crime, which Democrats opposed. (Minnesota Senate Media)

Republican and Democratic legislators who sparred at the Minnesota Capitol this spring over the severity of penalties that should be tied to a newly created carjacking crime have taken their argument this summer to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

While the legislature passed an omnibus public safety bill in May that included a provision establishing carjacking as a distinct crime, the sentencing commission is currently debating how stiff the punishment should be for those convicted.

Last week state senators Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, and Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, took turns testifying before the sentencing commission, with each defending the merit of sentencing language included in competing carjacking bills they authored in the Senate earlier this year.

This Thursday, the 10-member panel — which sets recommended punishments for newly established crimes that are within ranges set by the legislature — will vote on whether to impose enhanced penalties associated with the carjacking offense that Limmer favors, or to keep them identical to that of aggravated robbery penalties already in state statute, outlined in Seeberger’s bill.

Limmer introduced his carjacking bill, SF2028, in February. In addition to establishing carjacking as a distinct, separate crime from aggravated robbery or automobile theft, the bill contained language that would have increased the maximum prison sentence by five years and would have established a mandatory minimum sentence for carjacking of two to six years, depending on the severity of the crime. The legislation never received a hearing, and DFL legislators voted it down on the Senate floor on April 14 when Limmer offered it as an amendment to the omnibus public safety bill.

In mid-May, Democrats added an 11th-hour provision to their omnibus public safety bill while it was in conference committee that included language lifted from Seeberger’s carjacking bill, which she didn’t introduce until April. Republican legislators have contended that Seeberger’s bill contains “no teeth,” because the penalties associated with the offense are identical to that of aggravated robbery.

Sen. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, introduced a bill late in the 2023 legislative session that proposed the creation of a carjacking criminal statute with penalties identical to the already existing crime of aggravated robbery. Republicans criticized the bill as having “no teeth.” (Minnesota Senate Media)

“This is nothing more than just adding a line that says we recognize carjacking,” Limmer said of Seeberger’s bill during an April 24 Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee hearing. “Because the public is tired of [the increase in] carjackings, and there doesn’t seem to be a high record of full conviction by our courts.”

At the Thursday, July 20 sentencing commission hearing, Seeberger admitted to panel members that while the carjacking bill she sponsored — which goes into effect on Aug. 1 — is essentially identical in its penalty structure to that of aggravated robbery, she said the newly defined offense will allow the state to better “track carjacking crimes as a whole within the state, which can lead to further legislative action down the line once we have facts and data related to this offense.”

But Minnesota Appellate Court Judge Michelle Larkin, a member of the sentencing commission, told Seeberger she didn’t view it that way.

“You do understand that the act of ‘carjacking’ was a crime before? It fell under the category of aggravated robbery. It’s not exactly accurate to say this wasn’t a crime [before]. We just called it something else.”

Members of the public have also had an opportunity to testify in writing or before the commission on the carjacking sentencing.

Retired police officer David Zimmer, a public safety fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, urged commissioners to “adopt enhanced severity levels for carjacking commensurate with the level of terror and trauma that carjackings have come to represent to an unfortunate, growing number of Minnesotans.”

Zimmer, a 33-year police veteran, said that along with the “explosion of carjacking incidents across the state” — and primarily in Minneapolis — over the last three years, more than half of those convicted received downward departures of their sentences.

“Unless this body takes action to apply enhanced severity levels to the crime above those applied to traditional robbery, the creation of this crime is nothing better than window dressing,” he added.


Hank Long

Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.