In its simplest form, vehicle theft is a crime in which someone steals (or attempts to steal) a vehicle that isn’t theirs. Stealing cars, trucks, and motorcycles are some common examples. However, there are actually a number of different crimes that involve someone stealing a vehicle that does not belong to them.
The laws on car theft vary from state to state. In many states, the stealing of a vehicle is termed grand theft auto under the law. However, for instance, it matters whether or not the vehicle is occupied, as to what law the thief will be in violation of. Also, there are crimes which involve auto theft in addition to other related crimes, such as the taking of parts from a car to resell them. Let’s take a look at some common crimes related to vehicle theft.
The circumstances surrounding the vehicle theft are important when it comes to defining the crime that was committed. Although, as stated above, the laws vary by state, there are some generalities that apply in most cases.
Here are some variations on the vehicle theft theme:
- The vehicle may be taken while it is parked, unoccupied, and its owner is nowhere in sight. This kind of theft would be accomplished without the use of the owner’s keys;
- The vehicle may be stolen, when the owner is not present, but using the owner’s stolen keys. In some cases, the unattended vehicle may be stolen with the thief’s forged, or copied keys;
- Opportunistic theft: this type of theft may be less planned, and involves stealing a vehicle that has been left running with the keys inside;
- Carjacking: this well-known crime involves the taking of a vehicle while its owner occupies it, and is often accompanied with the threat of violence, in order to get the driver to hand over control of the vehicle. This is a more serious crime than that of taking the vehicle while its owner is not present. Even more serious is the crime of holding the driver hostage while stealing the vehicle. When this occurs, the thief will likely be charged with theft as well as other crimes, like assault;
- In some cases, the taking of a vehicle may not quite amount to car theft, or grand theft auto, but may still be a crime under the laws of the state; or
- Theft by fraud: This occurs when, for example, the car’s owner “sells” the car to someone else, but never receives the funds they were supposed to for the sale of the car. Fraudulent vehicle theft can, however, occur in many different forms.
When cars first became available for sale in the U.S., their theft quickly became both a common crime, and a problem for law enforcement. The National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, or the Dyer Act, was put into place in 1919, to criminalize the transporting of stolen vehicles across state lines. it remains in effect today. The Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act of 1984 was created to deal with the “chop shops,” in which stolen cars were stripped for parts that could then be resold. The Anti Car Theft Act of 1992 furthered the 1984 law’s goals.
Today, individual states do have their own laws regarding what constitutes vehicle theft, but the federal laws work in tandem with these laws, in an attempt to increase the recovery of stolen vehicles.
Penalties will depend on the nature of the theft. It could range from a lesser crime, or misdemeanor, to a felony. Felonies have varying degrees of seriousness, with accordingly varying degrees of punishment. Felonies are generally punished by incarceration, and so may be more serious misdemeanors. Fines are likely also involved for someone convicted of vehicle theft.
The amount of both the fine and jail time are based on a number of factors, including:
- How much the car was worth;
- Whether someone occupied the vehicle at the time of the theft;
- Whether the thief used a weapon in committing the crime;
- Whether anyone was hurt during the act of the theft of vehicle; and
- Whether the accused thief has been convicted of previous crimes.
Vehicle theft is a serious crime, and may be especially serious if someone was hurt during the process. Being convicted of a crime can have a serious impact on your future, such as your ability to get a job.
If you, or someone you care for, has been charged with vehicle theft, you should consider getting in touch with a local criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. An experienced lawyer in your area can help you with the charges, and can discuss your options with you, according to the vehicle theft laws in your state of residence.