Like many states, Ohio criminalizes motor vehicle theft under its general theft statute. The penalties for such offenses depend on the circumstances of the crime, as well as the victim. For other auto theft-related crimes, such as joyriding and carjacking, the law provides separate penalties, as discussed below.
Ohio has a general theft statute that applies to all sorts of property, including motor vehicles.
In Ohio, a person commits the crime of theft when they take or exert control over another’s property with the intent to deprive the owner of the property, and the person:
For example, a person who forces entry into someone else’s car and drives away without the owner’s permission has committed car theft. An offender also commits theft by tricking someone into letting them take their car, say by making up an emergency and driving away. Usually, the prosecutor can prove that the defendant intended to deprive the owner of the vehicle by relying on the circumstances of the crime, even without showing exactly what the defendant was thinking.
A person who steals a motor vehicle is guilty of a fourth-degree felony, punishable by six to 18 months of incarceration and a fine of up to $5,000. If the theft involves a person failing to return a rental car, the court can also order the defendant to pay restitution (repayment) to the car’s owner either for any damages sustained to the car or for any financial losses, such as loss of revenue.
(Ohio Rev. Code §§ 2913.02, 2929.14, 2929.18 (2020).)
Ohio law also prohibits joyriding—using or operating a motor vehicle without the consent of the owner or driver. Unlike the thief, the joyrider does not intend to keep the vehicle from the owner indefinitely. Ohio’s joyriding law—called unauthorized use of a vehicle—would apply to a child who takes a sibling’s car, without permission, for a ride to a friend’s home and back.
Any one of these circumstances elevates the crime to a fifth-degree felony, with penalties of six to 12 months’ prison time and a fine of up to $2,500. If the victim is an elderly person or disabled adult and the crime results in a financial loss for the victim, the offender faces up to a second-degree felony, which carries up to eight years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000. The penalty is based on the amount of the financial loss to the victim.
(Ohio Rev. Code §§ 2913.03, 2929.14, 2929.18, 2929.24, 2929.28 (2020).)
Motor vehicle theft becomes carjacking when the offender does any of the following during the commission of the theft or when fleeing from the crime scene:
Prosecutors charge carjacking under Ohio’s robbery laws. Carjackers face the more serious charge of aggravated robbery when they display or use a gun, carry a dangerous weapon, or cause or attempt to cause serious physical harm during the robbery.
Third-degree felony. Carjacking constitutes a third-degree felony when the offender uses or threatens to use force. The offender faces penalties of nine months to three years of incarceration and a fine of up to $10,000.
Second-degree felony. A person who inflicts or threatens to inflict bodily harm or has a weapon is guilty of a second-degree felony. Carjacking of this type carries punishments of two to eight years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
First-degree felony. An offender who commits aggravated robbery is guilty of a first-degree felony. Penalties for a first-degree felony theft include a prison term ranging from three to 11 years and a fine of not more than $20,000.
(Ohio Rev. Code §§ 2911.01, 2911.02, 2929.14, 2929.18 (2020).)
Defendants assert several defenses when facing motor vehicle theft and joyriding charges—the most common being the owner consented to the defendant’s use of the vehicle. In cases where the owner did grant permission, the question then becomes when the authorization ended. Permission from the day or hours before is not permission for later use of the vehicle.
In theft cases, offenders often claim they did not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle. For example, if a teenager steals a parent’s vehicle, picks up friends, drives around for several hours, and returns home, the teenager committed joyriding because the car was returned to the parent’s house. On the other hand, if a thief takes that same car, removes its parts, and sells them to the highest bidder, there is clearly no intention of ever returning that vehicle to its rightful owner.
A conviction for any crime, including joyriding, carjacking, or auto theft, can result in serious penalties, such as time in jail or prison, a fine, and a lasting criminal record. If you are charged with a crime, you should always talk to a local criminal defense attorney before making any statements to police. An experienced Ohio criminal defense attorney can tell you what to expect in court, protect your rights, and help obtain the best possible outcome in your case.