Motor vehicle theft, also known as grand theft auto, is a felony offense that is generally defined as the act of stealing or attempting to steal a motor vehicle that belongs to someone else. The act must be carried out with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of their vehicle. In other words, the defendant must have taken the motor vehicle without having any intentions of returning it to the rightful owner and was not simply borrowing it for a short time sans consent.

As is the case with most crimes, the definition and punishments associated with motor vehicle theft will vary in accordance with the laws of each individual state. However, the majority of state criminal statutes similarly define “motor vehicle” as any automated or self-propelled device that is used on roadways and is designed for the purposes of transporting persons and/or property.

Some examples of the types of devices that would likely constitute a motor vehicle under the bulk of state laws include:

  • Cars;
  • Trucks;
  • Buses;
  • Recreational vehicles;
  • Motorcycles;
  • All-terrain vehicles;
  • Sports utility vehicles;
  • Snowmobiles; and
  • Electric scooters.

It should be noted that theft of an aircraft, watercraft, construction equipment, or farm equipment will not be considered motor vehicle theft since these devices do not fall under the basic legal definition of a motor vehicle. Rather, the crime of motor vehicle theft is more commonly associated with thefts of passenger cars.

In addition, motor vehicle theft can occur in a number of different ways, such as:

  • Hot-wiring a vehicle;
  • Stealing a running vehicle;
  • Breaking into a vehicle;
  • Stealing a person’s keys and using them to take their vehicle; and/or
  • Taking a person’s vehicle from them by use of force (i.e., “carjacking”).

According to a recent report published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”), a vehicle is stolen every 43.8 seconds in the United States. Another report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (“NCIB”) provides that over 873,000 motor vehicle thefts took place throughout the U.S. in 2020—the year of the global pandemic. The increase of motor vehicle thefts has resulted in a loss of over 6 billion dollars for consumers and the auto industry.

Given these alarming statistics, it is not shocking to learn that states have begun cracking down on such property crimes. A conviction for motor vehicle theft can lead to serious criminal penalties, such as a prison sentence for one year or longer and large fines.

Therefore, if you have been charged with committing motor vehicle theft, you should contact a local criminal defense attorney immediately and ask if they would be willing to provide legal representation in court.

What Are the Legal Penalties for Motor Vehicle Theft?

As previously mentioned, motor vehicle theft is considered a serious criminal offense. Defendants who are convicted on motor vehicle theft charges may be punished in the following ways:

  • A term of imprisonment for a duration of one year or longer;
  • Heavy criminal fines that could amount to a total of $10,000 or more; or
  • A combination of both.

It is important to note that the legal punishment that a convicted defendant receives will depend on state laws, the nature of the crime, and the facts of an individual case. For instance, if a defendant simply borrowed a person’s motor vehicle without their consent, but had no intentions of permanently depriving them of it, then the defendant may only be charged with a misdemeanor offense in some states.

In general, the penalties for motor vehicle theft crimes that are classified as misdemeanors will typically result in lower criminal fines and/or jail sentences than those issued for motor vehicle theft crimes that are categorized as felonies. For example, defendants who are charged and convicted of committing grand theft auto can be sentenced to up to four years in prison and may need to pay a fine of $5,000 or more in certain states.

If the defendant also harms someone in the process of taking a motor vehicle or if they have a prior criminal record, then they may receive an enhanced sentence. In such cases, this means that the baseline for prison terms and fines prescribed by a state law can be doubled or even tripled. In addition, a defendant who is charged with committing multiple misdemeanors in connection with a motor vehicle theft will likely face felony charges as well.

What Is Carjacking?

As briefly mentioned in the first section, a carjacking refers to a situation wherein a defendant uses force to take possession of a motor vehicle that is owned by another individual. In many state criminal statutes, the crime of “carjacking” is often classified as a form of robbery that is combined with the offense of theft of a motor vehicle.

Although the definition for the crime of “robbery” will vary in accordance with state laws as well, it generally involves the following elements:

  • The unlawful act of taking or attempting to take property that belongs to another;
  • By using force, threat of force, or some other violent action; and
  • With the intent to permanently deprive that individual of their property.

Thus, an individual who proceeds to hold the driver of a motor vehicle at gunpoint while they are stopped at a red light or some other signal that pauses the flow of traffic and succeeds in depriving them of their motor vehicle, will have committed the crime of carjacking.

In addition, some state laws provide that a defendant can be charged with committing the crime of carjacking even if the owner of a motor vehicle was not near their car when it happened. For instance, if a defendant uses force to take possession of a driver’s car keys in order to steal their motor vehicle. The conditions in this scenario would constitute the crime of “carjacking” in states that recognize this form of motor vehicle theft under their laws.

Cases that involve a defendant using a gun to take possession of a driver’s motor vehicle are also considered to be another type of theft known as, “aggravated theft.” Depending on state laws, the crime of aggravated theft can carry criminal penalties of at least one year of imprisonment or longer and substantial monetary fines, as well as can result in a permanent criminal record.

Lastly, having a felony conviction on one’s permanent criminal record can lead to the loss of certain legal privileges and rights, such as voting in elections, owning a gun, and oddly enough, driving a motor vehicle.

Should I Hire an Attorney for Help with Motor Vehicle Theft Issues?

As is evident from the above discussion, persons who are charged and convicted of committing the crime of motor vehicle theft or grand theft auto can face some extremely serious legal consequences. Thus, if you have been arrested for committing motor vehicle theft and are currently waiting to be charged or have been charged already, then it is strongly recommended that you hire a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to discuss the severity of your charges and can advise you on how to proceed with your case. Your attorney will be able to conduct further legal research to see if there are any defenses available that you can raise against the charges at your hearing as well as can use to build a strong defensive argument for your case.

Your lawyer will also be able to inform you of your rights as a criminal defendant under the law and can provide legal representation at any criminal court proceedings related to your case. In addition, if you are convicted on motor vehicle theft charges, your attorney can ask the court on your behalf if it would be willing to consider an alternative sentencing option for your punishment, such as a reduced prison sentence or jail time with possibility of parole.

Finally, your attorney will also be able to explain how an alternative sentencing option works and can provide guidance on the ones that are consistent with the facts and charges in your case.