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.
Stealing a vehicle falls into the category of theft in New Jersey. A person commits theft by unlawfully taking or exercising control over the movable property of another (here a vehicle) with the intent to "deprive" the owner of their property. 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.
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 over $75,000, theft becomes a crime of the second degree, which carries penalties of five to ten years of incarceration and a fine of up to $150,000. In certain cases, the judge can impose higher fine amounts.
The law also provides additional penalties in the form of civil penalties ranging from $500 to $1,000 and suspension of driving privileges from one to ten years, depending on a defendant’s past 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 (2020).)
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. Such an offender is guilty of a crime of the fourth degree. A willing passenger in a joyridden vehicle also commits a crime of the fourth degree. Fourth-degree joyriding carries 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, they are then guilty of a crime of the third degree. After a conviction for a crime of the third degree, an offender 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 (2020).)
A person commits carjacking if, in the course of stealing or attempting to steal a motor vehicle, they do any of the following:
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 (2020).)
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:
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.