Auto Theft Laws in New Jersey

Auto theft and related crimes carry stiff penalties in N.J.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated January 29, 2024

Stealing a motor vehicle is a serious crime in New Jersey. New Jersey also criminalizes other actions involving the use of a motor vehicle, including carjacking and joyriding. Learn how New Jersey defines and punishes these vehicle theft-related crimes.

What Are the Penalties for Stealing a Vehicle in New Jersey?

A person commits vehicle theft—an indictable crime—by unlawfully taking or exercising control over another person's motor vehicle to deprive that person of their motor vehicle. Deprive means to withhold another's property permanently or long enough to strip the owner of the economic value or to dispose of the property in such a way that the owner won't likely recover it. For instance, the thief might intend to keep the vehicle, strip it for parts, or ditch it in a river but, in any event, does not intend the owner to get back the vehicle.

Criminal Penalties for Vehicle Theft in N.J.

Although most theft crimes in New Jersey dole out punishments based on the value of the stolen property, car theft differs slightly. New Jersey doesn't apply lower theft penalties, which start at disorderly persons offenses. Rather, vehicle theft starts as an indictable crime of the third degree, punishable by imprisonment for three to five years and a fine of up to $15,000. For vehicles valued at $75,000 or more or if the theft involved more than one motor vehicle, the offense becomes a crime of the second degree with penalties of 5 to 10 years of incarceration and a fine of up to $150,000. In certain cases, the judge can impose higher fine amounts.

New Jersey law provides enhanced penalties for defendants who have previously been convicted on two or more prior and separate occasions for vehicle theft.

Civil Penalties for Vehicle Theft in N.J.

The law also imposes civil penalties ranging from $500 to $1,000 and suspension of driving privileges from one to 10 years, depending on a defendant's record of vehicle theft convictions. Finally, the offender must pay restitution (compensation) to the owner for any expenses the owner incurred in recovering the motor vehicle or any damage done to it.

(N.J. Stat. §§ 2C:20-2, -2.1, -2.2, -3; 2C:43-2.1 (2024).)

What Are the Penalties for Receiving a Stolen Vehicle in New Jersey?

A person is guilty of receiving a stolen motor vehicle if they knowingly receive or bring into New Jersey a motor vehicle that belongs to someone else knowing or believing it's stolen property. Receiving means acquiring possession, control, or title to the vehicle or lending on the security of the motor vehicle.

Receiving a stolen vehicle is an indictable offense. If the vehicle's value is $75,000 or more, it's a crime of the second degree with penalties of 5 to 10 years of prison time and a $150,000 fine. In all other cases, receiving a stolen motor vehicle is a third-degree crime and subjects a guilty defendant to 3 to 5 years' imprisonment and a $15,000 fine.

Like vehicle theft, New Jersey law also allows for enhanced penalties for offenders convicted on two or more prior and separate occasions for certain vehicle-related crimes, including receiving a stolen motor vehicle.

(N.J. Stat. §§ 2C:20-10.2, 2C:20-10.3, 2C:43-3 (2024).)

What Are the Penalties for Joyriding in New Jersey?

A person commits joyriding—called "unlawful taking of means of conveyance" in New Jersey—by taking, operating, or exercising control over a motor vehicle without authorization and with the intent to temporarily (rather than permanently) withhold the vehicle from its lawful owner or user.

Joyriding is a crime of the fourth degree. A willing passenger in a joyridden vehicle also commits a crime of the fourth degree. Fourth-degree crimes for joyriding carry penalties of up to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine.

If the joyrider handles the vehicle in such a way that creates a risk of injury to any person or damage to the property, the penalty increases to a crime of the third degree. For this offense, a convicted defendant faces imprisonment for three to five years and a fine of up to $15,000.

(N.J. Stat. §§ 2C:20-10; 2C:43-3, -6 (2024).)

What Are the Penalties for Carjacking in New Jersey?

A person commits carjacking if, in the course of stealing or attempting to steal a motor vehicle, they do any of the following:

  • inflict bodily injury or use force on the person in possession or occupant of the vehicle
  • threaten the person in control of the vehicle or an occupant or place them in fear of immediate bodily injury
  • commit or threaten to commit any crime of the first or second degree (such as aggravated sexual assault), or
  • drive the car with the victim(s) still inside or force a victim to drive.

Carjacking is a first-degree-plus crime and carries penalties including 10 to 30 years in prison, with a 5-year minimum period of parole ineligibility.

(N.J. Stat. § 2C:15-2 (2024).)

Legal Defenses for Auto Theft Crimes in New Jersey

In any criminal matter, the availability of a legal defense will depend on the unique circumstances of that particular case. However, some of the following defenses are commonly used in auto theft cases.

Consent. When a defendant uses consent as a defense, it is often because the vehicle's owner once granted permission, but the events that took place make it unclear if the accused had permission at the time of the offense. If the owner gave consent for the taking in question, no crime occurred.

Mistake of fact. It can be a defense if the defendant didn't know they were driving a stolen vehicle.

Permanent deprivation. Stealing a car requires the intent to intentionally deprive the owner of its permanent use. Having the intent to take a car for a "joyride" is not enough to commit auto theft because the person did not intend to deprive the owner of their property, rather the intent was to temporarily withhold its use.

Talk to a Lawyer

Anyone facing a motor vehicle crime in New Jersey needs to talk to a local criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. You could unknowingly damage your ability to protect your rights if you make any decision about your case before receiving legal advice. An attorney can explain the criminal justice process, your options, and your rights.

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