Car theft laws are very much what they sound like. They are criminal laws that govern the unlawful taking of an automobile or motor vehicle, usually catalogued in the state’s motor vehicle crime statutes.
Although the details of car theft laws may be different depending on your state, most states prohibit the theft of most common vehicles, including cars, trucks, motorcycles, mopeds, and larger commercial vehicles like buses or semi trucks.
Often theft crimes are categorized in several ways, including the value of the stolen property—the higher the value of the property, the higher or greater the potential charges and resulting punishments. “Grand theft” is a theft offense that occurs when the stolen property is worth more than the state’s limit on petty theft.
Because most motor vehicles have a greater value than other types of possessions, motor vehicle theft is classified in many states as a grand theft felony offense. Grand theft auto is the grand theft of an automobile—a felony in all states.(If you’ve heard of the video game Grand Theft Auto, this is where the name of the game comes from.)
There are other offenses that can be included under the umbrella of car theft laws, as well. Carjacking involves the theft of a motor vehicle—usually done in a forceful or violent manner, causing the driver or owner of the car to give it up.
Some states consider a carjacking to have occurred even if the victim is not near their car. For example, if the person is threatened or forced to hand over their car keys, even if not near their car, this could potentially count as a carjacking.
Carjacking does not have to be done with a weapon, but the use of a weapon in a carjacking can certainly elevate the severity of the resulting charges. In some cases, carjacking charges can also be accompanied by charges of assault or battery if those crimes occurred when the defendant compelled the victim to surrender control of their car.
As with any crime, the prosecution has to show certain elements in order to sustain a successful case. In the case of car theft crimes, the prosecution must show that the defendant:
- Took or drove a vehicle without the owner’s consent;
- Did not have ownership rights to the car; and
- Possessed the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle.
In essence, the defendant must take or drive a vehicle that does not belong to them with the intent to not return it to the owner. There are many ways to “take” a vehicle, too. The vehicle might be left unattended with the keys inside, left unlocked and easily taken.
Or the car could be started through a process called “hotwiring,” where the defendant can bypass the vehicle’s ignition and start it without the key. In many instances, a defendant will break into the vehicle and hotwire the ignition to commit car theft.
An important element to keep in mind is that car theft crimes (including Grand Theft Auto) require an intent to steal the vehicle. A person who drives a friend’s car, mistakenly believing that the friend had agreed to let him borrow it and authorized him to drive the car, does not have the intent to steal the vehicle.
A person who accidentally drives the wrong car off of a rental car lot also does not necessarily have the intent to steal the car. These examples would likely not result in charges of Grand theft auto.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that every state has laws that define and outline the crime of motor vehicle theft. While the details may vary from state to state, most car theft laws classify the offense as either a serious misdemeanor or as a felony. Misdemeanor charges can generally result in fines and a jail sentence of up to one year. Felony charges, however, can involve larger fines and longer prison sentences.
There are also certain circumstances that can increase the severity of the charges (and thus the potential punishments). For example, if the theft involves violence, injury, or a weapon, the charges are called aggravated theft and are considered more serious, and the consequences can be more severe than they would be otherwise. Additionally, the theft of a police car is a very serious offense, and is generally considered a felony.
Motor vehicles tend to be large, with a greater monetary value than simple personal property, and motor vehicle theft can be a difficult charge to defend against, especially if the defendant is found in possession of a vehicle that belongs to someone else.
Depending on the circumstances of the case, some standard criminal defenses could apply, such as intoxication or mistake of fact (as in the above example of the rental car). The best way to discover if you have a viable defense against car theft is to hire an attorney. Since there are so many possible situations that can result in different outcomes, your best bet is to hire a legal professional who can study your situation and let you know the options.
If you are facing charges of vehicle or car theft, you will want to contact an experienced criminal lawyer to discuss your situation. A lawyer can help you determine what defenses you can raise in court and guide you through the nuances of the criminal court system. They can also explain your legal rights and answer any legal questions you may have as you navigate the system.