Vehicle theft is a crime in which someone steals, or attempts to steal, 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, which will be further discussed below.

However, in terms of what law the alleged thief violated, it does matter whether the vehicle is occupied. Additionally, there are crimes which involve auto theft in addition to related crimes. An example of this would be taking parts from someone else’s vehicle in order to resell them.

Car theft laws are a type of criminal laws, generally cataloged in each state’s motor vehicle crime statutes. Most states prohibit the theft of most common vehicles, including but not limited to:

  • Cars;
  • Trucks;
  • Motorcycles;
  • 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 out of 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? What Is Carjacking?

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, because 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, because this is a way to permanently deprive the vehicle’s original owner of their vehicle.

In order to be convicted of grand theft auto, the following elements must be present:

  1. The suspect took or drove the vehicle;
  2. The vehicle was not the lawful property of the defendant;
  3. The lawful owner of the vehicle did not give the defendant permission to take and/or drive the vehicle; and
  4. The defendant acted with the intention to permanently deprive the owner of their vehicle.

Most jurisdictions will include other vehicles in their definition of grand theft auto, not just common passenger vehicles. Some common examples of other vehicles include:

  • Motorcycles;
  • Boats;
  • Recreational vehicles (“RVs”); and
  • Campers.

The term “grand theft” specifically refers to when the stolen property exceeds the state’s limit on petty theft. As such, because motor vehicles generally have a greater value than other types of possessions, any motor vehicle theft is generally classified as a grand theft felony offense.

Some examples of the legal penalties associated with a grand theft auto conviction include:

  • Jail or prison sentence based on whether the crime is a misdemeanor or a felony;
  • Community service;
  • Criminal fines, the amount varying according to whether the crime is 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.

Carjacking is generally carried out in a forceful or violent manner, causing 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.

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 involving 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 in order to accomplish the theft.

Another 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, as well as 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 are necessary to prove carjacking:

  • The defendant took a motor vehicle that 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, and/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. Federally, the charge of carjacking requires that the vehicle has been either shipped, transported, or taken across state lines. If convicted of carjacking, the prison sentence can range from fifteen years to life, depending upon whether the victim of the carjacking was injured or killed over the course of the crime.

What Is A Chop Shop?

A chop shop is generally any place that is used to change a vehicle or parts of a vehicle that has been used in a crime, in order to prevent identification of a vehicle. An example of this would be how a chop shop might change the color of a stolen car to prevent it from being discovered by the police. Chop shops can be located in an actual automobile shop, but may also be found in other locations, such as a home garage.

Chop shop laws and the penalties for operating a chop shop vary from state to state. Depending on the state and the severity of the crime, it may be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. An example of this would be how in California, chop shop crimes are considered “wobbler” offenses, meaning that you can be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony.

Generally speaking, penalties for operating a chop shop will include paying a fine and/or jail time. The severity of your penalties will depend on various factors, including:

  • Your actual intent and purpose for operating a chop shop;
  • The value of property involved; and
  • Whether you have a criminal record, especially if your record includes previous chop shop offenses.

In order be found guilty of operating a chop shop, the following factors must occur:

  • You must knowingly and intentionally operate the chop shop, not simply own it;
  • The vehicle must be stolen or linked to criminal activity; and
  • You must have obtained the vehicle for the purpose of selling and/or disposing of the vehicle, or altering it so that it cannot be identified.

If any of the above factors are not present, you can use that as a defense in order to argue that you have not committed a crime. Another defense to a chop shop crime would be if the chop shop was discovered or identified through an illegal police search. An example of this would be if the police did not have a proper warrant to search the shop.

Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With Chop Shop Laws?

You should consult a criminal defense attorney if you need assistance with any type of chop shop law or legal issue. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can help you understand your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific laws. An attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.