In short, motor vehicle theft is the act of stealing or attempted theft of another person’s motor vehicle. In legal terms, motor vehicle theft occurs when an individual takes a motor vehicle, when they do not have lawful access to do so. 

In criminal law statutes, a motor vehicle is typically defined as any self-propelled land vehicle, including cars, trucks, buses, recreational vehicles, motorcycles, sports utility vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, scooters, or even snow mobiles. However, motor vehicle theft does not include farm equipment, construction equipment, aircraft, or watercraft. The most common motor vehicle theft usually involves the theft of a passenger car. 

Motor vehicle theft can occur in a variety of different ways, including breaking into a vehicle, hot-wiring a vehicle, stealing an individual’s keys and taking their vehicle, stealing a running vehicle, or even taking a vehicle from an individual through the use of force (“carjacking”). 

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (“FBI”) 2018 Uniform Crime Report Data, one motor vehicle is stolen in the United States every around every forty two seconds. That amounts to over 750,000 motor vehicles being stolen in the United States every year, which results in over a 6 billion dollar loss. Importantly, every state has a set of criminal laws that govern motor vehicle theft, along with various different legal penalties.

What Are the Legal Penalties for Motor Vehicle Theft?

As mentioned above, motor vehicle theft is a crime. As a crime, motor vehicle theft may be punishable by fines, imprisonment, or a combination of both. It is important to note that the legal penalty an individual may face, will depend on the nature of the incident. Most commonly, motor vehicle theft is classified as a misdemeanor

If the motor vehicle theft is classified as a misdemeanor, you can expect the legal penalties to include small fines, imprisonment for up to a year, or a combination of both. For example, if a person takes a motor vehicle for a “joy ride,” but does not have the intent to permanently deprive the other person of their motor vehicle, their crime may be classified as a misdemeanor.  

However, more serious motor vehicle thefts, such as grand theft auto, may result in felony charges. Felony motor vehicle theft is punishable by higher criminal fines, longer prison sentences, or both. For example, in a grand theft auto case where an individual takes a motor vehicle with an intent to permanently deprive the owner, that individual would likely face felony charges. 

Additionally, if the previously mentioned individual used force to take the motor vehicle, also known as “carjacking,” they would face even more serious criminal charges and penalties.  It is important to note that multiple misdemeanor charges against an individual, may also result in felony charges being brought against that individual.

What Is Carjacking?

As mentioned above, carjacking occurs when the use of force is applied in the process of a motor vehicle theft. Carjacking is commonly classified in criminal statutes as a form of robbery, coupled with a motor vehicle theft. The crime of robbery typically involves the following criminal elements:

  1. The taking of the property of another from the person or in their presence;
  2. Through the use of violence, intimidation, or threat; and
  3. The intent to permanently deprive the person of their property. 

As can be seen from the elements listed above, an individual who holds a driver of a motor vehicle at gunpoint while they are stopped at an intersection and takes the driver’s vehicle will be considered to have committed the crime of carjacking. Additionally, in some states, the crime of carjacking can occur even when the individual is not near their car. For example, if a person uses force or the threat of force to take a person’s keys, they may be considered to have committed carjacking. 

In the case where an assailant uses a gun to take the driver’s property, the crime would likely be considered an aggravated theft. Defendants who are found guilty of aggravated theft, will face criminal penalties of at least one year of imprisonment, significant fines, and a permanent felony record. Additionally, the felony conviction may result in a loss of the defendant’s legal rights, such as gun ownership, voting rights, and driving privileges. 

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

As can be seen, automobile or motor vehicle theft is a very serious criminal charge that may result in severe legal penalties. Therefore, if you are facing charges of motor vehicle theft, it is important that you immediately contact a well qualified and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney in your area.

An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to inform you of the severity of the charges you are facing, as well as advise you of your best course of legal action. Additionally, they will be able to help you assert the best legal defenses to the charges being brought against you, such as consent. Finally, an attorney will be able to provide you with legal representation in any necessary criminal hearings.