Minnesota criminalizes motor vehicle theft, joyriding, and failure to return a rental car under its general theft laws. In addition, Minnesota has a separate law that covers tampering with a vehicle. The crime of carjacking—taking a vehicle by force or threat of force—falls under the state’s robbery laws.
Minnesota’s general theft law covers several vehicle theft-related crimes—all of which are felonies. The term “motor vehicle” applies to cars, as well as any self-propelled device operated on land, rails, or water or in the air.
Under Minnesota law, theft occurs when someone takes, uses, or conceals another’s property without permission and with the intent to permanently deprive the person of the property. For instance, a person who steals a car intending to keep or sell it, bring it to a chop shop, or abandon it in a shed commits theft. A person also commits theft by altering, removing, or obliterating a vehicle identification number (VIN) or other permanent serial or manufacturer’s number to prevent the vehicle’s identification.
A person who takes or drives another’s motor vehicle knowing or having reason to know the owner did not consent can be found guilty of theft, even if the person plans to return the motor vehicle or ditch it somewhere to be found. Unlike many states, this temporary taking—often referred to as joyriding—carries the same statutory penalties as thefts involving a permanent taking (above). It’s also a crime to temporarily take someone’s vehicle intending to return it only if the owner pays for its return.
A person who intentionally fails to return rented or leased property, including a rental vehicle, at the end of the contract commits theft. If the person supplied false information in the contract or fails to return the property within five days of receiving a written demand from the leasing agency, the law presumes the person intended to violate this law. The fact that the person initially had the right to possess the property is not a defense in this case.
Like many states, Minnesota classifies and punishes theft based on the value of the stolen property. For any act of vehicle theft (including joyriding and failure to return a rental car), Minnesota statute provides a maximum five-year prison sentence for theft of a vehicle valued at or under $5,000 and a 10-year prison sentence for vehicles valued over $5,000.
While Minnesota statute provides the same maximum penalties for theft and joyriding, Minnesota’s Sentencing Guidelines rank the offenses differently. Under the guidelines' rankings, a permanent taking carries a higher possible sentence than a temporary taking (joyriding).
(Minn. Stat. § 609.52 (2020).)
Minnesota law has a separate crime to address illegal acts that don’t amount to theft of a vehicle but do involve unauthorized interference with another’s vehicle. The crime of tampering with a motor vehicle makes it a misdemeanor to intentionally:
Say a person walks around a parking lot checking for unlocked doors and, upon finding one, opens the door and grabs a purse. In this instance, the person interfered with the vehicle but didn't intend to steal the vehicle. The person intended to steal personal property from the vehicle and could be charged with tampering with a vehicle and theft of the purse (and its contents). If the person broke the window to steal the purse, the prosecutor could potentially charge tampering, theft of the purse, and criminal damage to property.
A misdemeanor for tampering carries a maximum of 90 days’ jail time and a $1,000 fine. A third conviction for tampering increases the penalty to a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $3,000 fine. (Minn. Stat. §§ 609.02, 609.153, 609.546 (2020).)
Some states have specific statutes regarding carjacking, while other states—including Minnesota—prosecute carjacking under their robbery laws. A person commits robbery by knowingly taking a motor vehicle from another person by force or threat of force. A robbery conviction carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Enhanced sentences apply if the carjacker:
A person convicted of first-degree aggravated robbery faces up to 20 years in prison. A conviction for second-degree aggravated robbery carries a 15-year prison sentence. (Minn. Stat. §§ 609.24, 609.245 (2020).)
If you are charged with motor vehicle theft or a related crime, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can explain Minnesota law, answer your questions, and help you present the strongest possible defense.