California criminalizes auto theft under its general theft law and under the vehicle code. Both crimes can be punished as misdemeanors or felonies. The biggest difference between the laws pertains to the defendant's criminal intent—whether the defendant takes the vehicle intending to deprive the owner of the vehicle permanently or temporarily.
Let's explore these crimes.
California law defines theft as the intentional and unlawful taking and carrying away of another’s property, with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property.
California’s theft law is divided into grand theft and petty theft, depending on the value of the item stolen.
If the stolen vehicle is valued at more than $950, the person can be convicted of grand theft auto. Grand theft is a wobbler offense that can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. A conviction for a misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of up to one year in jail. If convicted of a felony, a person faces prison time of 16 months, two years, or three years. In practice, prosecutors charge grand theft auto more often as a felony.
Stealing a vehicle worth $950 or less constitutes petty theft, which carries a misdemeanor sentence of up to six months in county jail, a fine of $1,000, or both. However, if an offender has a prior theft-related conviction and a prior conviction for a serious or violent offense, registrable sex offense, or embezzlement from a vulnerable adult, the penalty bumps up to a wobbler with the same penalties as grand theft auto (“petty with a prior”).
(Cal. Penal Code § 487 (2020); Cal. Proposition 47 (2014).)
California also makes it a crime to:
While a prosecutor must prove the defendant intended to permanently deprive another of their vehicle for an auto theft conviction, the offense of unlawful taking or driving of a vehicle requires only a temporary taking.
Unlawful driving or taking of a vehicle is sometimes referred to as joyriding. In many states, joyriding is a less serious crime than grand theft auto, but in California, the two crimes carry the same possible punishment. As with grand theft auto, the crime is a wobbler—chargeable as a misdemeanor or felony. In practice, many note that prosecutors charge joyriding more often as a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum sentence of up to one year in jail.
Enhanced penalties apply for taking a vehicle that is an ambulance, a marked police or fire department vehicle on an emergency call, or a vehicle modified and identified for use by a disabled veteran or person. The offense becomes a felony punishable by two, three, or four years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The same enhanced penalty—a two-, three-, or four-year felony sentence—applies if the person has a prior felony conviction or convictions for joyriding, grand theft auto, or any felony theft involving a vehicle.
(Cal. Penal Code § 666.5 (2020); Cal. Veh. Code § 10851 (2020).)
Carjacking is a much more serious crime than grand theft auto or unlawful taking or driving of a vehicle. Carjacking involves stealing an automobile from its owner by force or fear. In other terms, it’s a theft or unlawful taking of a vehicle plus robbery.
For carjacking, it doesn't matter whether the defendant intends to deprive the owner of the vehicle temporarily or permanently. A person who forces a driver out of a car at gunpoint commits carjacking, whether or not the person ditches the car a few miles later or takes the vehicle to a chop shop. A person convicted of carjacking faces a state prison term of three, five, or nine years. (Cal. Penal Code § 215 (2020).)
The two primary defenses to auto theft and unlawful taking of a vehicle are: the defendant lacked the intent to steal the vehicle permanently or the owner consented to the taking.
Lack of intent. If a person in California takes a car but intends to return it to the owner, the person has not committed the crime of grand theft auto but rather has committed the crime of theft and unlawful taking.
Owner's consent. If the owner of the car consented to the taking, there's 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.
If you are charged with auto theft, unlawful taking or driving of a vehicle, or carjacking, contact a criminal defense attorney in California as soon as possible. Besides time in prison or jail and a fine, a criminal record can have lasting consequences, including difficulty obtaining a job or a professional license or qualifying for certain government programs. Your best chance to avoid a criminal conviction is to work with an experienced local criminal defense attorney.