In Georgia, most vehicle theft offenses carry the possibility of felony penalties. This article will cover the crimes and penalties for vehicle theft, unlawful entry into a vehicle, vehicle hijacking (carjacking), and joyriding.
Stealing a motor vehicle falls under Georgia’s theft by taking law, which makes it a crime to unlawfully take or appropriate another's property, with the intent to deprive the owner of their property. In this case, the property is a vehicle.
Georgia penalizes theft based on the value of the property stolen. For felonies where the maximum sentence is 10 years or less, the judge may impose either the felony sentence or a misdemeanor sentence—such offenses are referred to as “wobblers” (as noted below).
The following penalties apply to vehicle theft.
It's also theft to knowingly fails to return a rental car with the intent of converting that car to one's own use. This act would be theft by conversion, which carries the same penalties as theft by taking.
(Ga. Code §§ 16-8-2, 16-8-4, 16-8-12, 17-10-3 (2020).)
In Georgia, the crime of joyriding can also be punished under the theft by taking statute. As noted above, a person commits theft by unlawfully taking or appropriating a vehicle with intent to “deprive” the owner of their vehicle. The law defines “deprive” as withholding another’s property permanently or temporarily without justification. So, even if a person intends to return the car or ditch it somewhere, it's still considered theft under Georgia's laws. The same penalties apply as those listed above.
(Ga. Code §§ 16-8-1, 16-8-2 (2020); Sorrells v. State, 267 Ga. 236 (1996).))
If a person enters a motor vehicle intending to steal something (like a purse or computer) or to commit a felony (such as destruction of property or assault), this unlawful entry constitutes a felony wobbler. The judge can sentence the defendant to one to five years in prison or impose a misdemeanor penalty.
An unlawful entry doesn’t need to involve breaking in (which could result in additional property damage charges). The person only needs to enter the car intending to commit a theft or felony, such as someone going through a parking lot and checking for unlocked car doors and valuable electronics to steal.
If the person enters the vehicle for an unlawful purpose not rising to the level of a felony or theft, the person commits criminal trespass—a misdemeanor.
(Ga. Code §§ 16-7-21,16-8-18 (2020).)
Stealing a vehicle from or in the presence of a person is considered motor vehicle hijacking (sometimes called carjacking). If the person possesses a firearm or weapon and obtains or attempts to obtain the vehicle by force, violence, or intimidation, the person faces ten to 20 years in prison. A second offense results in life imprisonment. Hijacking a vehicle that does not involve a weapon or violence carries a felony sentence of one to 10 years’ incarceration.
(Ga. Code Ann. § 16-5-44.1 (2020).)
Defenses to motor vehicle theft often involve arguing the defendant had permission to take the car or didn't intend to steal the car. If the owner allowed the defendant to take or drive the car, no crime has been committed. In some states, a defendant can argue he intended to take the car only temporarily, not permanently, in the hopes of getting a lower sentence for joyriding as compared to vehicle theft. But, in Georgia, theft and joyriding carry the same penalties—so, this argument isn't a defense to a conviction but might be helpful in arguing for a lower sentence.
If you're facing charges for a motor vehicle theft-related offense, contact a criminal defense attorney who knows the laws of your state. Having a felony, or even misdemeanor, conviction on your record can make it difficult to obtain a job or housing and can be used in future sentencing decisions.