Grand Theft Auto

A conviction for grand theft auto can have serious consequences, including prison time and steep fines.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated October 25, 2022

Grand theft auto, or stealing an automobile or other vehicle, is a felony in most states. A person who commits grand theft auto can face years in prison and stiff fines. The laws in each state are different, and while many states' laws contain similar elements of the crime, penalties vary considerably.

What Is Grand Theft Auto?

Grand theft auto is a felony theft offense. Some states have a separate crime specific to stealing vehicles, while other states include it in their general felony theft laws. Most states' laws don't call the crime "grand theft auto." Rather, it might be referred to as motor vehicle theft, unlawful taking of a vehicle, or, simply, grand theft.

Proving Grand Theft Auto

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
  • without the owner's permission, and
  • with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle.

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.

What's the Penalty for Grand Theft Auto? Is It a Felony?

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 will be. Other states punish auto theft as a felony no matter what the stolen vehicle is worth.

Most states classify grand theft auto as a felony, punishable by one or more of the following:

  • prison time (often up to five years or more)
  • a fine in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, and
  • restitution (repayment) to the victim for any damage to the car or the owner's loss of use of the car.

A first-time offender might be able to avoid prison time if the judge allows probation. But repeat offenders or offenders involved in an organized theft ring will likely face time in prison.

Defenses to Grand Theft Auto

Defendants often raise two main defenses to auto theft charges: (1) the defendant did not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the car, or (2) the owner consented to the taking.

No Intent to Permanently Deprive

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). Because joyriding involves a temporary (rather than permanent) deprivation of the vehicle, the penalties for joyriding tend to be less severe than auto theft.

Owner Consented

If the owner of the car consented to the taking, no crime was committed. However, the fact that the owner has previously allowed the defendant to drive the car does not mean the owner consented to the defendant taking the car on the particular occasion in question.

Also, in some states, a separate crime applies when a person possesses another's car with their consent (say an employee has keys to a company car) but uses the car for an unauthorized purpose (to drive to a casino, for example). In this situation, the person might be convicted of unauthorized use of a vehicle—a less serious crime than auto theft.

Other Crimes Related to Grand Theft Auto

Depending on the circumstances of the theft, a person could be looking at even more serious charges.

Burglary. If a person breaks into a car before taking it, or into a garage, the person could also be guilty of burglary.

Carjacking or robbery. If a person takes a car from its owner or driver by force or with a weapon, the person may be guilty of robbery, armed robbery, assault, or carjacking. These crimes are usually felonies and carry much harsher penalties than mere grand theft auto, sometimes as much as 20 years to life in prison.

Auto Theft Laws by State

Find your state below to get in-depth information regarding automobile theft laws and penalties.

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.

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