Auto Theft Laws in California

Stealing a vehicle or taking it on a joyride can result in a felony. Learn more about California's auto theft laws.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated December 02, 2022

California criminalizes auto theft under its general theft law and under the vehicle code. Other related vehicle-theft crimes discussed in this article include joyriding, possession of a stolen vehicle, and carjacking. Below we'll review the elements of these crimes and their penalties.

What Is the Penalty for Auto Theft in California?

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.

Grand Theft Auto in California: Felony Penalties

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. A second felony for auto theft, joyriding, or any felony theft involving a vehicle carries a penalty of two, three, or four years in prison.

Petty Theft of a Vehicle in California: Misdemeanor Penalties

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, 490.2, 666, 666.5 (2022); Cal. Proposition 47.)

Unlawful Driving or Taking of Vehicle (Joyriding) in California

California also makes it a crime to:

  • drive or take a vehicle belonging to another
  • without the owner's consent, and
  • with the intent to permanently or temporarily deprive the owner of possession of the vehicle.

The offense of unlawfully driving or taking a vehicle is commonly known as joyriding.

Temporary vs. Permanent Taking

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 can be established by proof of either intent to permanently or temporarily deprive the owner of their car.

Penalties for Unlawful Taking of a Vehicle (Joyriding) in California

If the vehicle is worth $950 or less (and isn't driven or taken after being stolen), joyriding is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Joyriding in a stolen vehicle or vehicle worth more than $950 is a wobbler punishable by up to 364 days in jail (misdemeanor) or by 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in jail (felony).

Increased penalties apply for unlawfully 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 increased 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 (2022); Cal. Veh. Code § 10851 (2022); People v. Bullard, 460 P.3d 262 (Cal. Sup. Ct. 2020).)

Possession of a Stolen Vehicle in California

Knowing possession of a stolen vehicle is typically a wobbler offense unless the vehicle is worth $950 or less. For these low-value vehicles, the defendant faces up to 364 days in jail. Otherwise, the penalty can be either up to 364 days in jail (misdemeanor) or 16 months, two years, or three years' imprisonment (felony).

(Cal. Penal Code § 496 (2022).)

Carjacking Laws and Penalties in California

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 (2022).)

Defenses to Vehicle Theft and Related Crimes

Like most crimes, defendants charged with vehicle theft or a related crime might be able to establish that they didn't do the crime; it was a case of mistaken identity.

Another common defense strategy is to poke holes in the prosecution's case. If the prosecution can't prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge or jury should acquit. For example, auto theft or joyriding charges won't hold up if the owner consented to the taking. However, this defense is only viable if the owner consented to the taking on that particular occasion (not the day before or for another purpose). If charged with possession of a stolen vehicle, a defendant might have a defense that they didn't know the vehicle was stolen. Defendants charged with carjacking might argue that they did not take the vehicle by fear or force.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are charged with auto theft, unlawful taking or driving of a vehicle, possession of a stolen 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.

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