Auto Theft Laws in New Jersey

Like many states, a conviction for motor vehicle theft or a related crime in New Jersey can result in a lengthy prison sentence and substantial fines.

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.

Motor Vehicle Theft in New Jersey

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).)

Unlawful Taking of Means of Conveyance (Joyriding)

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).)

Carjacking

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 (2020).)

Legal Defenses

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. The defendant did not know they were driving a stolen vehicle.
  • Permanent deprivation. Stealing a car requires the intent to intentionally deprive the owner of its 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.

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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