Auto Theft Laws in Kentucky

Motor vehicle theft, joyriding, and carjacking carry serious penalties in Kentucky, including prison or jail time, fines, and restitution.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated By Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated November 23, 2020

It's a crime in Kentucky to steal a vehicle or use someone else's vehicle without permission ("joyriding"). A person who commits vehicle theft can face up to a 10-year prison sentence. Stealing a vehicle from a person by force (carjacking) can result in 20 years in prison.

Motor Vehicle Theft in Kentucky

Motor vehicle theft is prohibited and punished under Kentucky's general theft law. In addition, separate crimes apply for knowingly possessing a stolen vehicle or a vehicle with its identification number (VIN) altered or destroyed.

Definition of Theft

A person commits the crime of theft in Kentucky by taking or exercising control over property that belongs to someone else with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property.

Permanent deprivation. A person has the intent to permanently deprive the owner of property whenever the thief doesn't intend to return the property, intends to keep it for an extended amount of time, or disposes of the property so it's unlikely to be found by the owner. Usually, the prosecution can rely on the circumstances of the theft to show that the defendant intended to permanently deprive the owner of the property. For example, a person who forces entry into a car and drives away without the owner's permission almost certainly intends to deprive the owner of the property. So does a person who steals a running vehicle from a garage and hides it in a shed 500 miles away. (Ky. Rev. Stat. §§ 514.010, 514.030 (2020).)

Definitions of Receiving Stolen Property and Altering a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

If a thief brings the vehicle to a chop shop or sells or gives it to someone, the person who accepts the vehicle could face penalties for receiving stolen property if the person knew or should have known the vehicle was stolen. To prove a person should have known the vehicle was stolen, the prosecutor could present evidence, such as the person accepted the vehicle despite the lack of any vehicle registration, title, or license plates or took a too-good-to-be-true deal from a private seller who didn't have the original keys or title.

A separate crime (called obscuring identity of property) applies when a person alters or destroys the VIN or possesses a vehicle knowing the VIN is altered.

(Ky. Rev. Stat. §§ 514.110, 514.120 (2020).)

Penalties for Motor Vehicle Theft

Like most states, Kentucky punishes most thefts based on the value of the property stolen. The more valuable the stolen property, the more severely the theft is punished. Receiving stolen property and altering a VIN carry the same penalties.

  • If the stolen vehicle is worth more than $10,000, the penalty is a Class C felony, punishable by five to 10 years in prison.
  • If the stolen vehicle is worth between $500 and $10,000, the penalty is a Class D felony, punishable by one to five years in prison.
  • If the stolen vehicle is worth less than $500, the penalty is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail.

In addition to possible prison time and fines, the judge would likely order the defendant to pay restitution to the victim. (Ky. Rev. Stat. §§ 514.030, 514.110, 514.120 (2020).)

Joyriding or Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle

A person commits the crime of joyriding—called unauthorized use of an automobile in Kentucky—by operating or using a vehicle without the permission of the car's owner or operator. Joyriding differs from vehicle theft in its intent: Joyriding involves a temporary taking, while theft involves a permanent taking. For example, a teenager takes a school bus for a spin around town without the permission of the bus driver (or the school board). Even though he returns the bus without any damage, the teen has committed a joyriding offense.

For a first joyriding offense, a defendant faces a Class A misdemeanor and up to a year in jail. If the person has prior convictions for joyriding or vehicle theft, the penalty bumps up to a Class D felony, punishable by one to five years in prison. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 514.100 (2020).)


Kentucky punishes carjacking—taking a vehicle from the owner or driver by force or threat of force—under the state's robbery statute.

A person who uses or threatens to use force against another to steal a vehicle commits a Class C felony and faces up to 10 years in prison. The penalty becomes a Class B felony, punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison, if the carjacker:

  • is armed with a deadly weapon
  • uses or threatens to use a dangerous instrument against the victim, or
  • injures another person.

(Ky. Rev. Stat. §§ 515.010, 515.020 (2020).)

Failing to Return a Rental Car

Some states specifically include failing to return a rental car in the definition of theft. Kentucky does not, but Kentucky's theft law is broad enough that it likely covers the failure to return a rental car. As soon as a person keeps a rental car after the expiration of the rental period and with the intent not to return it, the person has committed theft.


In Kentucky and elsewhere, defendants often raise two primary defenses to motor vehicle theft. The first defense is that the defendant had (or believed to have) the owner's permission or consent to use the vehicle. Note that, even if a person sometimes has permission to use a vehicle, the issue is whether the person had permission on this particular occasion. The second possible defense is that the defendant did not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle, in which case the crime would be joyriding, not motor vehicle theft.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are charged with motor vehicle theft, joyriding, or any other crime, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can tell you what to expect in court, based on the charges and the assigned judge and prosecutor. Hopefully, with an attorney's help, you can obtain the best possible outcome in your case.

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