Minnesota prosecutors use new carjacking law to charge violent offenders

Three weeks into a new Minnesota law, county prosecutors are beginning to use the new carjacking statute to charge violent offenders.

Before Aug. 1, the state did not have a specific crime of carjacking. Instead, it was often prosecuted as an aggravated robbery. The new statute comes with stiffer prison consequences for first-degree convictions. 

"There are so many carjackings going on, and they have got to get creative and aggressive with different ways to try to deter the carjackings," said local criminal defense attorney Ryan Pacyga.

Pacyga has represented defendants charged in federal court with carjacking-related offenses, but now it is a new tool for prosecutors to use at the state level.

An explosion in violent and sometimes dangerous carjackings across the metro in recent years prompted the Legislature to specifically identify carjacking as its own crime in Minnesota.

A first-degree carjacking conviction comes with enhanced prison time equivalent to third-degree murder and first-degree assault.

The presumed sentence for someone with no prior criminal history – more than seven years in prison, and going up from there depending on a defendant’s prior record.

The same conviction for aggravated robbery – is a presumed four years.

"Some would say that it is a little harsh," said Pacyga.

To date, it appears two county prosecutors have used the new carjacking statute in its first few weeks as law.

Hector Gracia-Sainz has been charged with attempted first-degree carjacking in Dakota County for trying to take a victim’s vehicle in West St. Paul.

And just a couple of days ago, Kyrees Johnson was charged with a slew of crimes, including aiding and abetting first-degree carjacking for an alleged robbery set-up that turned into a shootout on the streets of St. Paul. The victim’s Chevrolet HHR was reportedly taken amid the chaos and the gunfire.

"Others have argued it is more severe to take a car where that is someone's primary mode of transportation, either to getting kids to and from places, or jobs, or what have you. And so that is a more severe crime than an armed robbery, an aggravated robbery, if you will, where you are taking somebody's wallet or other private property of theirs," said Pacyga, 

Critics of the new law argue that threatening or forcefully taking a victim’s motor vehicle has always been a crime, and the criminal justice system should not differentiate and punish more severely, whether it’s a car or something else.

As for the two current carjacking cases, it will take some time to work through the courts to determine what kind of difference the new statute has on the ultimate outcome.