Car theft is another way to refer to vehicle theft crimes. Simply put, vehicle theft is a crime in which someone steals (or attempts to steal) a vehicle that does not belong to them. Theft of cars, trucks, and motorcycles are some common examples; however, there are a number of different crimes involving someone stealing a vehicle that does not belong to them.
The laws governing car theft vary from state to state. In many states, stealing a vehicle is considered to be grand theft auto under the law. This will be further discussed below. However, in terms of what law the alleged thief violated, it does matter whether or not the vehicle is occupied. Additionally, there are crimes involving auto theft in addition to other related crimes. An example of this would be taking parts from a car in order to resell them.
Car theft laws are criminal laws, generally cataloged in each state’s motor vehicle crime statutes. Most states prohibit the theft of most common vehicles, including but possibly not limited to:
- Mopeds; and
- Larger commercial vehicles, such as buses or semi trucks.
Some common examples of car theft include:
- A vehicle being taken while it is parked, unoccupied, and the owner is nowhere in sight;
- An unattended vehicle may be stolen by using the thief’s forged or copied keys;
- Stealing a vehicle that has been left running with the keys inside;
- Carjacking; and
- Theft by fraud.
What Is Grand Theft Auto?
The crime of grand theft auto specifically refers to stealing a vehicle, when the vehicle’s owner is away, with the intent to permanently keep the vehicle. It is considered to be a serious auto crime. Stealing someone else’s vehicle for joyriding purposes would not be considered grand theft auto; this is due to the fact that the intent to permanently take the vehicle is not present. However, stealing a vehicle to then sell any part of it will likely constitute grand theft auto, as this is one way to permanently deprive the vehicle’s original owner of said vehicle.
In order for a person to be convicted of grand theft auto, the following elements must all be present:
- They took or drove the vehicle;
- The vehicle was not the lawful property of the defendant;
- The lawful owner of the vehicle did not give the defendant permission nor consent to take and/or drive the vehicle; and
- The defendant acted with the intention to permanently deprive the owner of their vehicle.
It is important to note that most jurisdictions will include other vehicles in their definition of grand theft auto, not just common passenger vehicles. As previously mentioned, some common examples of other vehicles include:
- Recreational vehicles (“RVs”); and
The term “grand theft” specifically refers to when the stolen property exceeds the state’s limit on petty theft. As such, due to the fact that motor vehicles generally have a greater value than other types of possessions, any motor vehicle theft is classified in most states as a grand theft felony offense.
Some examples of the legal penalties associated with a grand theft auto conviction could include the following:
- Jail or prison sentence, according to whether the crime is considered to be a misdemeanor or a felony;
- Community service;
- Criminal fines, the amount varying according to whether the crime is ruled a misdemeanor or a felony;
- Loss or suspension of driver’s license;
- Probation of over one year; and/or
- Restitution which is to be paid to the victim.
What Is Carjacking?
Carjacking is generally carried out in a forceful or violent manner, which causes the owner or driver of the vehicle to give it up to the robber. Some variations of carjacking include:
- With or without a weapon;
- The offender may expel the owner or driver from the vehicle; and/or
- The offender may force the owner or driver to remain inside, while the offender takes control of the vehicle themselves.
Carjackers will commonly create scenarios intended to trick vehicle owners into allowing them access to the vehicle. An example of this would be how an offender may pretend to have been in an accident, or otherwise create a situation in which the carjacking victim stops to assist them.
Grand theft auto and carjacking are considered to be two separate crimes. Grand theft auto differs from carjacking in that carjacking is a type of robbery which involves force or the threat of force. Both crimes involve the theft of a vehicle, but only one involves the use of force or a weapon to accomplish the theft.
Another example of the difference between the two would be that grand theft auto is carried out without the use of violence, and the vehicle’s actual owner is generally not present. During a carjacking, the vehicle’s actual owner is likely present. A defendant who commits carjacking can be charged with robbery or aggravated robbery. Carjacking charges may also be accompanied by charges of assault or battery, if those crimes occurred while the defendant compelled the victim to surrender control of their vehicle.
Generally speaking, the following elements must exist in order to prove carjacking:
- The defendant took a motor vehicle they did not own;
- The vehicle was taken from the immediate presence of the person driving, or a passenger;
- The vehicle was taken against the will of the owner or driver;
- The defendant used fear, force, or violence in order to take the vehicle; and
- When the defendant took the vehicle, they intended to permanently deprive the owner or driver of said vehicle.
It is important to note that some jurisdictions will require that the defendant intended to cause serious bodily harm, in order for the crime to be considered a carjacking. The federal charge of carjacking requires that the car has been either shipped, transported, or taken across state lines.
If convicted of carjacking, the prison sentence can range from fifteen years to life. The length of the sentence will depend upon whether the victim of the carjacking was injured or killed over the course of the crime.
Are There Any Defenses To Car Theft? What Is Intent To Steal?
Much of what constitutes car theft hinges on the defendant’s intent to steal. This can serve as an excellent defense. An example of this would be a person who drives a friend’s car, mistakenly believing that the friend had agreed to let them borrow it and authorized them to drive the car. The person does not have the intent to steal the vehicle.
Another example of this would be a person who accidentally drives the wrong car off of a rental car lot. These examples would not usually result in charges of grand theft auto.
Other defenses may include:
- Duress; and
- Mistake of fact.
Do I Need an Attorney If I Have Been Charged With Car Theft?
If you are being charged with car theft, you should consult with an experienced and local criminal lawyer as soon as possible. A local criminal attorney will be best suited to advising you on your state’s specific laws, and what legal options may be available to you.
Your attorney can also look for ways to reduce your sentencing, or can help you provide a legal defense that has your charge taken from a felony to a misdemeanor. A criminal defense attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed, while protecting your rights.