Auto Theft Laws in Georgia

In Georgia, a person accused of auto theft or carjacking faces potentially severe criminal penalties. Although a conviction for either of these offenses carries the possibility of a prison sentence and fine, a defendant may raise one or more defenses to the charges.

Motor Vehicle Theft

While Georgia law contains a statute that deals exclusively with motor vehicle hijacking (known as carjacking), it does not have a statute devoted exclusively to nonviolent auto theft. Instead, a person who commits nonviolent auto theft is charged under the general “theft by taking” statute. Georgia defines the crime of theft by taking as the unlawful taking of another person’s property.

Failure to Return a Vehicle

A person also commits theft by taking by being in lawful possession of property but then appropriating the property with the intent to deprive the owner of the property, regardless of the manner in which the property is appropriated. Under this definition, a person who has rented a car but does not return the car as required by the rental agreement commits theft by taking if the person retains the car with the intention of depriving the owner (the rental agency) of the vehicle.

A person who fails to return a vehicle to its owner may also be charged with the crime of theft by conversion. A person commits theft by conversion when, being in legal possession of another’s property pursuant to an agreement (such as a car rental agreement), converts the property to the person’s own use, in violation of the agreement.

(Ga. Code Ann. § § 16-8-2, 16-8-4)

Joyriding

In Georgia, the crime of joyriding is punished under the state’s criminal trespass statute. A person may commit criminal trespass in a number of ways, including several ways that involve vehicles. Specifically, a person commits criminal trespass by entering another person’s vehicle either for an illegal purpose or after having been notified by the owner that entering the vehicle is forbidden. A person who remains in a vehicle after the owner orders the person to leave the vehicle also commits criminal trespass. Therefore, a person who takes a vehicle on a joyride may be charged with criminal trespass.

(Ga. Code Ann. § 16-7-21)

Motor Vehicle Hijacking (Carjacking)

Georgia law defines motor vehicle hijacking as taking a car from another person by force and violence or intimidation, while in possession of a firearm or other weapon. A person also commits motor vehicle hijacking by attempting or conspiring to take the car by force or intimidation.

(Ga. Code Ann. § 16-5-44.1)

Punishing Motor Vehicle Theft-Related Crimes

Just as Georgia law does not contain a statute devoted exclusively to nonviolent automobile theft, the Georgia Code does not contain a provision that expressly provides penalties for nonviolent auto theft. Instead, § 16-8-12 provides the range of punishments that a judge will apply when sentencing a defendant convicted of nonviolent motor vehicle theft, regardless of whether the defendant has been convicted of theft by taking or theft by conversion.

Vehicles used in commercial transportation of cargo

A person convicted of stealing a vehicle engaged in commercial transportation of cargo faces a minimum of three years in prison and a maximum of ten (the judge also has the discretion to place the defendant on probation or suspend the sentence), and a fine of $5,000 to $50,000. If the defendant has a commercial driver’s license, a conviction for commercial vehicle theft will result in loss of that license.

Non-commercial vehicles

If the vehicle is not engaged in commercial transportation of cargo, the offense is punished according to the value of the vehicle. If the vehicle is worth:

  • $1,500 to $5,000: one to five years in prison
  • $5,000 to $25,000: one to ten years in prison, and
  • $25,000 or more: two to 20 years in prison

However, the judge has the discretion to punish the offense as a misdemeanor, whether the value of the property is $2,000, $20,000, or $200,000. Georgia law provides a maximum sentence of a year in jail and $1,000 fine upon conviction of a misdemeanor.

(Ga. Code Ann. § § 16-8-12, 17-10-3)

Penalties for Joyriding

A person convicted of criminal trespass for joyriding commits a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

(Ga. Code Ann. § 17-10-3)

Penalties for Carjacking

A defendant convicted of motor vehicle hijacking faces a sentence of ten to 20 years in prison, and a fine from $10,000 to $100,000. If the defendant has a prior conviction for carjacking, the new conviction carries a life sentence in prison and fine of $100,000 to $500,000. In order to receive a life sentence, it is not necessary that the defendant committed the prior carjacking in Georgia. A prior conviction originating from another state or another country will satisfy the life sentence provision as long as the offense would constitute carjacking if it had been committed in Georgia.

(Ga. Code Ann. § 16-5-44.1)

Defenses to Motor Vehicle Theft

The defenses available to a defendant charged with motor vehicle theft are generally the same defenses available to defendants charged with theft of any type of property. For example, a defendant charged with stealing another person’s property (whether that property is a car, television, or any other tangible property) may argue that the purported victim had given the defendant permission to possess and use the property.

In cases where a defendant is charged with appropriating another’s property that was in the defendant’s lawful possession, the defendant may argue a lack of intent to deprive the owner of the property. In such cases, the prosecutor often does not have evidence that directly proves the defendant’s intent to deprive the owner of the property. Instead, the prosecutor will ask the jury or judge to makereasonable inferences from this circumstantial evidence to arrive at the conclusion that the defendant intended to steal the property from the owner. For example, the prosecutor may argue that a defendant who kept a rental car weeks past the return date required by the rental contract clearly showed the defendant’s intent to deprive the owner of the car. The defendant may introduce evidence that counters the prosecutor’s contention, such as evidence that the defendant reasonably but mistakenly believed the rental period covered the weeks the prosecutor alleges that the defendant improperly retained the car.

As with any type of criminal case, a defendant charged with motor vehicle hijacking may argue that the prosecutor has failed to prove one or more of the elements of the offense. For example, a defendant may argue that the prosecutor did not prove that the defendant possessed any type of weapon during the alleged crime.

Consult An Attorney

If you are charged with motor vehicle theft or motor vehicle hijacking in Georgia, you should speak with an attorney immediately. Both motor vehicle theft and hijacking offenses carry potentially lengthy prison sentences as well as steep fines. An experienced attorney can evaluate your case and discuss defenses to the charges. A qualified attorney is your best resource for fighting motor vehicle theft or hijacking charges.

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