Auto Theft Laws in North Carolina

Learn about North Carolina's criminal laws and penalties for stealing a vehicle and related crimes.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated 2/26/2024

Stealing, tampering with, or joyriding in a vehicle can result in jail or prison time in North Carolina. The state has several laws dealing with motor vehicle theft and related crimes.

North Carolina's Vehicle Theft Laws

Like many states, North Carolina criminalizes motor vehicle theft under its general theft statute. Separate laws cover related crimes. Those discussed in this article include joyriding, carjacking, stealing vehicle parts, possessing a stolen vehicle or its parts, and tampering with a vehicle.

Exact penalties for offenses described below vary according to the defendant's prior conviction record and the court's discretion based on North Carolina's unique structured sentencing system.

Is It a Felony to Steal a Vehicle in North Carolina?

In North Carolina, a person who steals a vehicle or its parts has committed larceny. The law defines larceny as the unlawful taking of another's property with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of their property. Penalties for larceny depend on the circumstances of the offense.

Penalties for Auto Theft

Theft of a motor vehicle constitutes either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the vehicle's value. An offender who steals a vehicle worth more than $1,000 commits a Class H felony, which carries a standard sentencing range of 5 to 20 months of incarceration and a maximum of 3 years. A defendant guilty of unlawfully taking a motor vehicle valued at $1,000 or less faces a Class 1 misdemeanor conviction and up to 120 days in jail and a fine.

Penalties for Stealing Vehicle Parts

Theft of a motor vehicle part is a Class I felony if the cost of repairing the motor vehicle is $1,000 or more or the part is a catalytic converter. A guilty defendant faces 4 to 10 months' imprisonment with a maximum penalty of 2 years. The cost of repairing a motor vehicle includes the cost of any replacement part and any additional costs necessary to install the replacement part in the vehicle, such as labor.

Penalties for Carjacking

North Carolina charges the crime of carjacking under its robbery statute. Carjacking occurs when a person, while threatening to use or using a firearm or other dangerous weapon, unlawfully takes a vehicle from the victim. Such an offense constitutes a Class D felony, punishable by a standard sentence of 4 to 10 years of prison time and a maximum sentence of 17 years. If the unlawful act doesn't involve a weapon, the offense is a Class G felony. A defendant convicted of a Class G felony faces a standard sentencing range of 10 months to 2 years' imprisonment and a maximum punishment of 4 years of prison time.

Is It a Crime to Possess a Stolen Vehicle or Parts in North Carolina?

North Carolina law also makes it a crime for a person to possess a stolen vehicle or its parts (even if they didn't do the stealing).

Felony Possession of Stolen Vehicles

Any person who knowingly receives or transfers possession of a stolen motor vehicle commits a Class H felony, punishable by a standard sentencing range of 5 to 20 months of incarceration and a maximum of 3 years. A defendant can't get out of a conviction by simply claiming to be ignorant of the item's stolen status. This penalty also applies if the prosecutor can prove the defendant should have known the vehicle or parts were stolen. For instance, buying a car from a known car thief should indicate to the buyer that it's likely stolen.

Possession of a Stolen Catalytic Converter

An offender who knowingly possesses a catalytic converter that has been unlawfully removed from a motor vehicle faces a Class I felony conviction and is subject to 4 to 10 months' imprisonment with a maximum penalty of 2 years.

Chop Shop Activities

A chop shop is a place where stolen motor vehicles or their parts are knowingly destroyed, altered, assembled, reassembled, dismantled, or stored for criminal purposes. North Carolina makes it illegal to own, operate, or conduct a chop shop. Additionally, if a person sells or purchases any vehicle or its part to or from a chop shop, they have violated this statute.

A person who engages in any of these chop shop activities faces a Class G felony conviction, which carries a standard sentencing range of 10 months to 2 years' imprisonment and a maximum punishment of 4 years of prison time.

What Is Tampering With a Vehicle in North Carolina?

Tampering with and breaking into another person's automobile are also crimes in North Carolina.

Injuring or Tampering With a Vehicle

A defendant commits a Class 2 misdemeanor when they willfully injure or tamper with any vehicle or break or remove any of its parts without the owner's consent. For example, punching holes in a vehicle's tires or smashing headlights or taillights would likely fall under this statute. Additionally, the law makes it a crime to climb into or onto a vehicle or manipulate any of its mechanisms with ill intent. These Class 2 misdemeanors carry up to 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Breaking Into a Vehicle

A person who breaks or enters into a motor vehicle intending to commit a felony or larceny inside is guilty of a Class I felony and faces 4 to 10 months' imprisonment with a maximum penalty of 2 years. If the vehicle belongs to a law enforcement agency or branch of the military, the charge increases to a Class H felony, punishable by a standard sentencing range of 5 to 20 months of incarceration and a maximum of 3 years.

Is Joyriding a Crime in North Carolina?

Yes. A person commits joyriding by taking another person's vehicle without permission. Unlike vehicle theft (larceny), a joyrider intends to deprive the owner of the vehicle's use or possession temporarily (not permanently). Joyriding—known in North Carolina as the unauthorized use of a motor-propelled conveyance—is a Class 1 misdemeanor. A guilty defendant is subject to up to 120 days in jail and a fine in an amount determined by the court.

Possible Defenses to Auto Theft or Related Charges in North Carolina

Depending on the circumstances of a case, defendants charged with vehicle theft or a related crime might present one or more defenses.

Innocence. For instance, the defendant might argue they didn't commit the crime by presenting an alibi or evidence that an eyewitness mistakenly identified them as the perpetrator.

Lack of proof. Another common defense strategy is to poke holes in the prosecution's case. The judge or jury should acquit if the prosecution can't prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, auto theft or joyriding charges won't hold up if the owner consented to the taking. However, this defense is only viable if the owner consented to the taking on that particular occasion (not the day before or for another purpose). If charged with possessing a stolen vehicle, a defendant might have a defense that they didn't know or shouldn't have known that the vehicle was stolen.

Lesser offense. It's also possible that a defense would support lesser charges. For instance, defendants charged with carjacking might argue that they did not have or claim to have a weapon—reducing the charges from armed robbery to robbery. Or a person charged with auto theft might try to convince the jury that they didn't intend to deprive the owner of the car permanently. Rather, the charges should be reduced to joyriding because their intent was a temporary taking.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you're facing charges of auto theft or a similar crime, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area as soon as possible. A lawyer can evaluate the strength of the prosecution's case against you and help develop any defenses that might apply to the unique circumstances of your case. A knowledgeable attorney can also advise you on how the law will apply to your set of facts.

(N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-3, 14-56.4, 14-71.2, 14-72, 14-72.2, 14-72.7, 14-72.8, 14-87, 14-87.1, 14-160.4, 14-164.1, 15A-1340-17, 15A-1340.23 (2024).)

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