Vehicle theft crimes are crimes that occur when an individual steals or attempts to steal a vehicle which they do not own. In legal terms, a vehicle theft occurs when an individual takes a motor vehicle which they do not have lawful access to.

Common examples of stolen vehicles include:

  • Cars;
  • Trucks; and
  • Motorcycles.

There are, however, a number of different offenses which involve an individual stealing a vehicle that does not belong to them. The laws governing vehicle theft vary from state to state.

In many states, vehicle theft is called grand theft auto under state law. Depending on whether or not the vehicle was occupied, the charges may vary. This offense is called grand theft because the property stolen during the offense exceeds the state’s limit on petty theft.

In most criminal law statutes, a motor vehicle is defined as any self-propelled land vehicle. This may include:

  • Cars;
  • Trucks;
  • Busses;
  • Recreational vehicles;
  • Motorcycles;
  • Sports utility vehicles;
  • All-terrain vehicles;
  • Scooters; and
  • Snow mobiles.

It is important to note, however, that motor vehicle theft does not include:

  • Farm equipment;
  • Construction equipment;
  • Aircraft; or
  • Watercraft.

Motor vehicle theft most often involves stealing a passenger car and can occur in numerous ways. These may include:

  • Breaking into a vehicle;
  • Hot-wiring a vehicle;
  • Stealing an individual’s keys and taking their vehicle;
  • Stealing a running vehicle; and
  • Taking a vehicle from an individual by the use of force, called carjacking.

In addition, there are crimes which involve vehicle theft as well as other related crimes, such as stealing parts from a vehicle to resell them. This article will examine some common crimes related to vehicle theft.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) 2019 Uniform Crime Report indicates that there are 219.9 vehicles stolen for every 100,000 inhabitants. There are over 700,000 motor vehicles stolen in the United States each year, resulting in over $6 billion dollars lost.

What are Some of the Crimes Related to Vehicle Theft?

The circumstances which surround a vehicle theft are very important when determining exactly what crime was committed. Although, as previously noted, vehicle theft laws vary by state, there are some generalities which apply in the majority of cases.

Some variations on the crime of vehicle theft include:

  • A vehicle may be taken while it is parked, unoccupied, and the owner is nowhere in sight. This type of theft would be accomplished without the use of the vehicle owner’s keys;
  • A vehicle may be stolen when the owner is not present, but by using the owner’s stolen keys.
  • In some cases, an unattended vehicle may be stolen with the thief’s copied, or forged, keys;
  • Opportunistic theft, which is a kind of theft that is not totally planned and occurs when an individual steals a vehicle that has been left running with the keys inside;
  • Carjacking, which is a well-known crime involving the taking of a vehicle while its owner occupies it. This crime is often accompanied with the threat of violence in order to persuade the driver to hand over control of the vehicle. This is a more serious crime than that of taking the vehicle while the owner is not present;
    • Even more serious the carjacking is the crime of holding the driver hostage while stealing a vehicle. When this occurs, the thief will likely be charged with theft as well as other crimes, such as assault;
  • In some cases, the taking of a vehicle may not satisfy the requirements of car theft, or grand theft auto, but may still be a crime under the laws of the state; or
  • Theft by fraud, which occurs when, for example, a vehicle’s owner sells the vehicle to another individual but never receives the funds they were entitled to for the sale.

What is the Background of Vehicle Theft in the United States?

When vehicles first became available for sale in the United States, car theft quickly became a common crime as well as a problem for law enforcement. The Dyer Act, or the National Motor Vehicle Act, was enacted in 1919, which criminalized the transporting of stolen vehicles across state lines.

This Act remains in effect today. The Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act of 1984 was created due to chop shops, where stolen cars were dismantled and stripped for parts which could then be resold. The Anti Car Theft Act of 1992 was enacted to further the goals of the 1984 Act.

Currently, individual states have their own laws regarding what constitutes vehicle theft. However, federal laws typically work in tandem with state laws in an attempt to increase the recovery rate of stolen vehicles.

What are the Legal Penalties for Vehicle Theft?

The legal penalties for vehicle theft will depend on the nature of the theft and the circumstances surrounding it. The charges may range from a lesser crime, or a misdemeanor, to a more serious crime, such as a felony.

There are varying degrees of felonies with accordingly varying degrees of punishments. In general, a felony is punished by incarceration of one year or more as well as hefty criminal fines. If an individual takes a motor vehicle with the intent to permanently deprive the owner, they would likely face felony vehicle theft charges.

More serious misdemeanors may also be punished by incarceration and criminal fines. Misdemeanors typically carry a penalty of less than one year in jail and smaller fines than felonies.

For example, suppose an individual takes a motor vehicle that they do not own for a joy ride but without the intent to permanently deprive the owner of their property. In this case, the crime may be classified as a misdemeanor.

In many states, grand theft auto is considered a wobbler crime. This is a type of crime that is not always charged as a misdemeanor or a felony but can be charged as either one depending on the facts and circumstances of the case.

If an individual, called a defendant, is convicted of vehicle theft, they will typically be faced with fines. The amount of both the jail time and the fine are based on a number of factors, which may include:

  • How much the car was worth;
  • Whether anyone occupied the vehicle at the time of the theft;
  • Whether the thief used a weapon when committing the crime;
  • Whether anyone was hurt during the commission of the theft of vehicle; and
  • Whether the accused thief, or defendant, has been convicted of any previous crimes.

Do I Need an Attorney for Assistance with Vehicle Theft Charges?

It is essential to have the assistance of a criminal defense lawyer if you have been charged with vehicle theft. Vehicle theft is a serious charge, and may be especially so if an individual was injured during the commission of the crime.

Being convicted of crimes can have a serious impact on your, your future, and your loved ones. It may impact your future ability to find employment.

It is important to contact an attorney as soon as possible so they can begin building your defense. Your attorney can advise you of your charges as well as the vehicle theft laws in your state, discuss possible defenses, and represent you during any court appearances.

Your attorney may be able to negotiate a plea deal for lesser punishment or attempt to have your charges reduced. It is important not to face these charges alone, as an attorney is best equipped to fight for your rights.