Auto Theft

California has two different statutes criminalizing auto theft. The only difference is whether the defendant intends to take the car temporarily or permanently. Each crime may be punished as a misdemeanor or a felony.

Theft and Unlawful Taking of a Vehicle

A person in California commits the crime of theft and unlawful taking or driving of a vehicle by:

  • driving or taking a vehicle belonging to another
  • without the owner’s consent
  • with the intent to permanently or temporarily deprive the owner of the vehicle
  • Unlawful taking is punished more severely if the vehicle is an ambulance or marked police or fire department vehicle

(Cal. Veh. Code § 10851.)

Theft and unlawful taking of a vehicle is sometimes referred to as joyriding. In many states, joyriding is a less serious crime than auto theft, but in California, the two crimes carry the same possible punishment.

For example, in California, a person who takes a car and intends to sell it could be convicted of either this crime or grand theft auto. However, a person who borrowed a friend’s car without permission and intending to return it could be convicted only of theft and unlawful taking.

Grand Theft Auto

Under California’s laws, grand theft auto is the taking of an automobile belonging to another with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle. (Cal. Pen. Code § 487.)

Grand theft auto, or stealing an automobile or other vehicle, is a felony in most states, and may be punished by imprisonment. While the laws in each state are different, there are some general principles that apply in every state.

What is Grand Theft?

Theft crimes are divided into petty thefts, which are usually misdemeanors that are punished by up to one year in jail; and grand thefts, which are usually felonies, punishable by one year or more in prison. Grand theft is the theft of property worth more than a certain dollar amount, often between $500 and $1,000. However, in most states, theft of a car is always grand theft, even if the car is not worth very much.

Proving Grand Theft Auto

In order to convict a person of grand theft auto, the prosecutor must show that the defendant:

  • took or drove a vehicle
  • that belonged to someone else
  • with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the object

A car can be taken in many ways. It can be left unattended with the keys, or it can be left unlocked and started without a key (hotwired), or it can be broken into and hotwired.

In many states, grand theft auto laws apply not only to the theft of cars, but also to the theft of boats, campers, motorcycles, and other vehicles. In some states, the crime of grand theft auto is committed only if the vehicle is taken on public roads (obviously, in such a state, theft of a boat would not be considered grand theft auto).

Defenses to Grand Theft Auto

The two primary defenses are that the defendant did not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the car or that the owner consented to the taking.

Intent

If a person takes a car but intends to return it to the owner, the person has not committed the crime of theft, only the crime of unlawful taking or driving of a car (also called joyriding). Joyriding is usually a misdemeanor and is a less serious offense than theft.

Consent

If the owner of the car consented to the taking, then there is no crime. However, the fact that the owner has previously permitted the defendant to drive the car does not establish consent; the question is whether the defendant had the owner’s consent to take the car on the particular occasion in question.

In some states, if a defendant takes a car that belongs to someone else, but that the defendant is sometimes permitted to drive and has keys (such as a child taking a parent’s car, or an employee taking a boss’s car) then the defendant may be guilty of a crime called taking without the owner’s consent (TWOC), which is a less serious crime than theft and is usually a misdemeanor.

Punishment for Grand Theft Auto

Punishment varies from state to state and depends on the circumstances of the crime and whether the defendant has any prior convictions. In some states, the more the stolen property is worth, the harsher the punishment.

Grand theft auto is usually a felony, and may be punished by:

  • imprisonment
  • restitution (repayment) to the victim for any damage to the car or for the owner’s loss of use of the car
  • a fine, or probation

Other Related Crimes

If a person breaks into a car before taking it, or into a garage, the person may also be guilty of burglary. (To learn more about burglary, see our page on Burglary) If a person takes a car from its owner or driver by force or with a weapon, the person may be guilty of robbery, assault, or carjacking. These crimes are usually felonies and carry harsher penalties than mere grand theft auto, sometimes as much as ten to 15 years in prison.

Carjacking

Carjacking is a much more serious crime than grand theft auto or theft and unlawful taking of a vehicle. Carjacking is the taking of an automobile from its owner or from the owner’s immediate presence by force or fear. For example, a person who forces a driver out of a car at gunpoint commits carjacking. For carjacking, it does not matter whether the defendant intends to deprive the owner of the vehicle temporarily or permanently.
(Cal. Pen. Code § 215.)

Defenses

The two primary defenses to auto theft are that the defendant did not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the car, or that the owner consented to the taking.

Intent

If a person in California takes a car but intends to return it to the owner, the person has not committed the crime of grand theft, but has committed the crime of theft and unlawful taking.

Consent

If the owner of the car consented to the taking, then there is no crime. However, the fact that the owner has previously permitted the defendant to drive the car does not establish consent; the question is whether the defendant had the owner’s consent to take the car on the particular occasion in question.

Penalties

In California, grand theft auto is a “wobbler”, which means that it may be either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on how the crime is charged and, sometimes, how the judge or jury decides to treat a conviction.

When the crime is a misdemeanor, it is punishable by up to one year in jail. As a felony it is punishable by 16 months, two years, or three years in county jail.

Theft and unlawful taking is also a wobbler, punishable by one year, 16 months, two years, or three years in jail, and by a fine of up to $5,000.

Carjacking is a felony, punishable by a prison term of three, five, or nine years.

A second or subsequent conviction for grand theft auto or theft and unlawful taking is punishable under California’s Three Strikes Law.

For more information, see Three Strikes and You’re Out.
(Cal. Pen. Code §§ 215, 489, 1170(h); Cal. Veh. Code § 10851.)


Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are charged with grand theft; auto theft or unlawful taking, you should contact the BAUM LAW CORPORATION as soon as possible. Besides time in prison or jail and a fine, a criminal record can have lasting consequences, including difficulty obtaining a job or a professional license or qualifying for certain government programs. Your best chance to avoid a criminal conviction is to work with an experienced local criminal defense attorney such as the experienced attorneys at BAUM LAW CORPORATION.

Call us for a free confidential consultation today!


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