Auto Theft Laws in New Jersey

Stealing a car or motor vehicle is a serious crime in New Jersey. New Jersey also criminalizes other actions involving the use of a motor vehicle.

For more information about thefts involving motor vehicles, read Grand Theft Auto.

Theft or Unlawful Taking of an Automobile

Theft occurs when a person takes the property of another, without consent, and with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property’s use or possession. Depending on the circumstances, theft can be anything from a disorderly persons offense to crimes of the first degree in New Jersey. (New Jersey Statutes Annotated section 2C:20-3)

The theft of a car is similar to the theft of any other property in New Jersey, with one key exception. New Jersey does not have a specific car theft law, but does allow for enhanced penalties when someone is convicted of a theft or unlawful taking or a motor vehicle. Someone convicted of this crime faces additional fines, in addition to the penalties for theft, as well as the suspension of driving privileges for up to 10 years. (New Jersey Statutes Annotated section 2C:20-10)

Other Motor Vehicle Crimes

There are several other motor vehicle crimes in New Jersey that do not constitute car theft.

  • Carjacking. Carjacking is the taking or attempted taking of an automobile, either by the direct or implied use of force. In New Jersey, someone convicted of carjacking faces a prison sentence of between 10 and 30 years, with a 5-year minimum period of parole ineligibility. (New Jersey Statutes Annotated section 2C:15-2)
  • Joyriding. Joyriding is taking or using a car without the intent to permanently deprive the owner of its use or possession. In New Jersey, joyriding is a disorderly person offense, crime of the fourth degree, or crime of the third degree depending on the circumstances. (New Jersey Statutes Annotated section 2C:20-10)
  • Unlawful keeping of a rental car. Keeping a rental car beyond the agreed upon time period can also result in criminal charge. New Jersey does not have a specific criminal law that addresses keeping a rental car, so someone committing this offense could be charged with auto theft or a similar offense.

Legal Defenses

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

  • Consent. You cannot be convicted of automobile theft if you have permission from the vehicle’s owner. 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 of the accused had permission at the time of the offense. For example, let’s say your friend grants you permission to use his truck. After granting permission, you and your friend get into an argument, but the friend never explicitly says you can no longer borrow the vehicle. You borrow the truck and are charged with auto theft. In this situation you could use consent as a defense because the owner granted his permission and never explicitly rescinded it.
  • Mistake of fact. If you don’t know, or had no way to know, that a car was stolen, you do not have the requisite intent to commit an auto theft. For example, let’s say you rent a car. You park the car in a parking lot and come back to it some time later. You drive off in the car only to realize that it isn’t actually the car you rented, but is a similar make and model. Though the car is not yours, you did not have the intent to steal it, and have not committed auto theft.
  • Permanent deprivation. Stealing a car requires the intent to intentionally, and permanently, deprive the owner of its use. Having the intent to take a car for a “joy ride” is not enough to commit auto theft because there is no intent to permanently deprive the owner.


Auto theft is a serious crime in New Jersey, and one that comes with significant potential penalties. Depending on the circumstances, someone convicted of an auto theft crime could face substantial fines, probation, and lengthy incarceration sentences.

For example, someone stealing a car worth between $500 and $75,000 commits a crime of the third degree in New Jersey and faces between 3 to 5 years in prison, up to $15,000 in fines, as well as the additional penalties that apply to auto theft.

For more information about felony and misdemeanor crimes and penalties, read New Jersey Misdemeanor (Disorderly Person) Crimes by Class and Sentences, and New Jersey Felony (Indictable) Crimes by Class and Sentences.

Legal Advice

Anyone facing a motor vehicle crime in New Jersey needs to talk to an experienced 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. If you’ve been charged with a crime, approached by the police, or believe you need legal advice, talk to an attorney in your area as soon as possible.

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