Grand theft auto, or stealing an automobile or other vehicle, is a felony in most states, and may be punished by imprisonment. While the laws in each state are different, there are some general principles that apply in every state.
What is Grand Theft?
Theft crimes are divided into petty thefts, which are usually misdemeanors that are punished by up to one year in jail; and grand thefts, which are usually felonies, punishable by one year or more in prison. Grand theft is the theft of property worth more than a certain dollar amount, often between $500 and $1,000. However, in most states, theft of a car is always grand theft, even if the car is not worth very much.
Proving Grand Theft Auto
In order to convict a person of grand theft auto, the prosecutor must show that the defendant:
- took or drove a vehicle
- that belonged to someone else
- with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the object.
A car can be taken in many ways. It can be left unattended with the keys, or it can be left unlocked and started without a key (hotwired), or it can be broken into and hotwired.
In many states, grand theft auto laws apply not only to the theft of cars, but also to the theft of boats, campers, motorcycles, and other vehicles. In some states, the crime of grand theft auto is committed only if the vehicle is taken on public roads (obviously, in such a state, theft of a boat would not be considered grand theft auto).
Defenses to Grand Theft Auto
The two primary defenses are that the defendant did not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the car or that the owner consented to the taking.
If a person takes a car but intends to return it to the owner, the person has not committed the crime of theft, only the crime of unlawful taking or driving of a car (also called joyriding). Joyriding is usually a misdemeanor and is a less serious offense than theft.
If the owner of the car consented to the taking, then there is no crime. However, the fact that the owner has previously permitted the defendant to drive the car does not establish consent; the question is whether the defendant had the owner’s consent to take the car on the particular occasion in question.
In some states, if a defendant takes a car that belongs to someone else, but that the defendant is sometimes permitted to drive and has keys (such as a child taking a parent’s car, or an employee taking a boss’s car) then the defendant may be guilty of a crime called taking without the owner’s consent (TWOC), which is a less serious crime than theft and is usually a misdemeanor.
Other Related Crimes
If a person breaks into a car before taking it, or into a garage, the person may also be guilty of burglary. (To learn more about burglary, see our article Burglary: Penalties and Sentencing.)
If a person takes a car from its owner or driver by force or with a weapon, the person may be guilty of robbery, assault, or carjacking. These crimes are usually felonies and carry harsher penalties than mere grand theft auto, sometimes as much as ten to 15 years in prison.
Punishment for Grand Theft Auto
Punishment varies from state to state and depends on the circumstances of the crime and whether the defendant has any prior convictions. In some states, the more the stolen property is worth, the harsher the punishment.
Grand theft auto is usually a felony, and may be punished by:
- restitution (repayment) to the victim for any damage to the car or for the owner’s loss of use of the car
- a fine, or
Getting Legal Advice and Representation
A conviction for grand theft auto can have serious consequences, including imprisonment. If you are charged with grand theft auto, you should contact a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An experienced attorney will be familiar not only with the laws in your state, but also with the judge and prosecutor assigned to your case. An attorney will be able to tell you how your case is likely to fare in court and can help you prepare your best defense.