What are the consequences and penalties of auto theft in California?

California has two different statutes that criminalize auto theft. The only difference is whether the defendant intends to take the car temporarily or permanently. Each crime may be punished as a misdemeanor or a felony.

Grand Theft Auto

Under California’s laws, grand theft auto is the taking of an automobile belonging to another with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle. (Cal. Pen. Code § 487.)

For example, a person who takes a car and intends to bring it to a chop shop could be convicted of grand theft auto.

For general information on auto theft, see Grand Theft Auto.

Theft and Unlawful Taking of a Vehicle

A person in California commits the crime of theft and unlawful taking or driving of a vehicle by:

  • driving or taking a vehicle belonging to another
  • without the owner’s consent, and
  • with the intent to permanently or temporarily deprive the owner of the vehicle.

Unlawful taking is punished more severely if the vehicle is an ambulance or marked police or fire department vehicle.

(Cal. Veh. Code § 10851.)

Theft and unlawful taking of a vehicle is sometimes referred to as joyriding. In many states, joyriding is a less serious crime than auto theft, but in California, the two crimes carry the same possible punishment.

For more information on joyriding, see What is the Difference Between Joyriding and Stealing a Car?

For example, in California, a person who takes a car and intends to sell it could be convicted of either this crime or grand theft auto. However, a person who borrowed a friend’s car without permission and intending to return it could be convicted only of theft and unlawful taking.

Carjacking

Carjacking is a much more serious crime than grand theft auto or theft and unlawful taking of a vehicle. Carjacking is the taking of an automobile from its owner or from the owner’s immediate presence by force or fear. For example, a person who forces a driver out of a car at gunpoint commits carjacking. For carjacking, it does not matter whether the defendant intends to deprive the owner of the vehicle temporarily or permanently.

(Cal. Pen. Code § 215.)

Defenses

The two primary defenses to auto theft are that the defendant did not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the car, or that the owner consented to the taking.

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, but has committed the crime of theft and unlawful taking.

Consent. 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.

Penalties

In California, grand theft auto is a “wobbler”, which means that it may be either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on how the crime is charged and, sometimes, how the judge or jury decides to treat a conviction.

When the crime is a misdemeanor, it is punishable by up to one year in jail. As a felony it is punishable by 16 months, two years, or three years in county jail.

Theft and unlawful taking is also a wobbler, punishable by one year, 16 months, two years, or three years in jail, and by a fine of up to $5,000.

Carjacking is a felony, punishable by a prison term of three, five, or nine years.

A second or subsequent conviction for grand theft auto or theft and unlawful taking is punishable under California’s Three Strikes Law.

For more information, see Three Strikes and You're Out.

(Cal. Pen. Code § § 215, 489, 1170(h); Cal. Veh. Code § 10851.)

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are charged with grand theft auto or theft and unlawful taking, you should 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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