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Car Theft Laws

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What Are Car Theft Laws?

Car theft laws are a very specific body of criminal laws governing the unlawful taking of an automobile. These laws are catalogued under state automobile crime statutes. Car thefts are usually categorized under grand theft laws because of the value of the property involved. Grand theft occurs when property is stolen that is worth more than the statutory limit of petty theft. Typically, a car’s property value at the time it was stolen is over the limit of petty theft. Grand theft of a car, commonly known as grand theft auto, is classified as a felony in all states.  Car theft laws can be different from state to state, but crime of car theft generally involves the theft of any automobile, including:

  • Passenger cars
  • Pickup trucks
  • Motorcycles and mopeds
  • Larger vehicles such as buses or commercial vehicles

While grand theft auto is the most common form of car theft, the stealing of a car may be classified as “carjacking” instead if the driver is forced out of their vehicle during the theft. The act of carjacking may result in a very severe charge if a weapon is used against the driver.

How Can a Car Theft Crime Be Proven?

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

  1. Took or drove a vehicle without the owner’s consent
  2. Did not have any ownership rights to the car, such as being a co-owner of the car or a possessor of a lien placed against the car
  3. Possessed the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle

A car can be taken in many ways. The car can be left unattended with the keys, or it can be left unlocked and started without a key through a process known as “hotwiring”. Many times, the defendant will break into the car and hotwire it in order to commit car theft.

In many states, car theft 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.

What Are the Legal Consequences for Car Theft?

Every state has car theft laws, though they may be slightly different in each state. Most car theft laws classify the crime as either a serious misdemeanor charge or as a felony charge. Misdemeanor charges can result in a criminal fine and a jail sentence of up to one whole year in a county facility. Felony charges can involve similar fines and a prison sentence in a federal facility, usually longer than one year.

Generally, if the car theft involves violence, the use of a weapon, or injury to another person, the consequences will be more serious for the defendant. Also, some states may increase the penalty for car theft if the car involved was very expensive. Theft of a police car is a very serious offense and is generally classified as a felony.

Are There Any Legal Defenses for Car Theft Charges?

Car theft is one of the more difficult charges to defend against, mostly due to the size of cars in general, and the monetary value of most cars. Some standard criminal defenses may apply, such as voluntary or involuntary intoxication. Also, it may be a defense if the person is needed to address an emergency situation. However, the court would need to determine all the factors surrounding the emergency to determine if the theft of the car was necessary or if the alleged emergency was just an excuse.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Help Me Defend Myself Against Car Theft Charges?

Car theft charges can often lead to very serious criminal penalties. If you need assistance with any legal issues or with the car theft laws in your area, you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. Your lawyer can help explain your legal rights to you, and can determine which defenses may be an option for you. Also, your attorney can provide you with the necessary legal guidance during trial proceedings.

Photo of page author Kourosh Akhbari

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 10-13-2016 05:46 PM PDT

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