Understanding Grand Theft Auto

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 What Is Grand Theft Auto, and How Is it Different From Carjacking?

Grand theft auto refers to stealing a vehicle, when the vehicle’s owner is not present, with the intent to permanently keep it. It is a serious auto crime, which entails driving a motor vehicle in a reckless and dangerous manner, or using the vehicle to commit another crime such as a robbery. Stealing a person’s vehicle for joyriding purposes would not be considered grand theft auto, as 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.

The following elements must be present for an individual to be convicted of grand theft auto:

  1. The defendant 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 not consent to take or drive the vehicle; and
  4. The defendant intended 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 automobiles. Some common examples of other vehicles include motorcycles, boats, recreational vehicles (RVs), and campers. The term “grand theft” refers to the theft offense occurring when the stolen property exceeds the state’s limit on petty theft. Therefore, due to motor vehicles generally having a greater value than other types of possessions, motor vehicle theft is classified in most states as a grand theft felony offense.

Grand theft auto and carjacking are two separate crimes. Grand theft auto differs from carjacking in that carjacking is a type of robbery involving force or the threat of force. Most commonly, the threat of force used in a carjacking is a firearm. Both involve the theft of a vehicle, but only one involves the use of force to accomplish the theft. 

Grand theft auto is carried out without the use of violence, and the vehicle’s actual owner is generally not present. Carjacking utilizes violence or force, with the vehicle’s actual owner likely present. A defendant who commits carjacking can be charged with robbery or aggravated robbery.

What Are the Likely Legal Consequences for Grand Theft Auto?

Many states consider grand theft auto to be a “wobbler.” A wobbler is a crime that is not definitively a misdemeanor or a felony, but could go either way depending on the specifics of the case. Grand theft auto charges may be considered a felony, but there are unique circumstances that reduce it to a misdemeanor. Typically, the crime of grand theft auto is charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances and if the defendant has any prior convictions.

The legal penalties for a grand theft auto conviction could include the following:

  • A jail or prison sentence, according to whether the crime is ruled a misdemeanor or a felony;
  • Community service;
  • Heavy fines, according to whether the crime is ruled a misdemeanor or a felony;
  • Loss or suspension of driver’s license;
  • Probation of over one year; or
  • Restitution paid to the victim.

Once again, the severity of the punishment depends on the circumstances of the case, and on the judgment of the court. Additionally, if other crimes were committed in addition to the crime of grand theft auto, they may be added to the charge. An example of this would be if the defendant broke into the victim’s garage in order to steal the vehicle, leading to an additional burglary charge.

Are There Any Legal Defenses for Grand Theft Auto?

A criminal defense attorney is best suited for determining if there are any available defenses for grand theft auto, based on the specifics of the case at hand. However, no matter the circumstances, the prosecution must prove that the defendant intended to permanently deprive the vehicle’s lawful owner of their property. If they cannot prove that element of the crime, the lack of intent defense may be utilized. Should the defendant be able to prove that they did not intend to permanently keep the vehicle, but intended to return it, they may face a joyriding charge as opposed to a grand theft auto charge.

Another defense that may be used is consent. If the vehicle’s legal owner provided consent to the defendant to be in possession of the property, whether temporarily or permanently, a grand theft auto conviction is unlikely. Again, any available defenses will likely come down to intent and consent. Other defenses to theft in general may include intoxication, duress, or mistake of fact.

Do I Need an Attorney for Grand Theft Auto Charges?

It is important that you consult with a skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney if you are facing grand theft auto charges or other similar issues. The crime of grand theft auto can be difficult to defend against, and an attorney will be best educated in helping you face your charges and assert your best legal defenses.

An experienced attorney can explain your legal rights to you, as well as your state’s specific laws regarding grand theft auto. Finally, they can represent you in court at any necessary hearings.

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