Auto Theft Laws in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania lawmakers have criminalized motor vehicle theft, carjacking (a very serious crime), and joyriding (a less serious offense). For more general information on motor vehicle theft, see Grand Theft Auto.


Under Pennsylvania’s theft statute, a person commits a crime by taking or exercising control over property that belongs to someone else without permission and with the intent to deprive the owner of the property. Having an intent to deprive the owner of the property merely means that the defendant intends to keep or use the property. For example, a person who takes another person’s car from a parking lot and then abandons it has committed theft.

Like many states, Pennsylvania classifies most thefts based on the value of the property taken. However, some thefts, including motor vehicle thefts, are punishable based on the nature of the stolen property, not its value. The same possible punishment applies to theft of a car whether it is worth $1,000 or $50,000. (18 Pa. Con. Stat. § § 3903, 3921.) For more general information on theft, see Pennsylvania Petty Theft and Other Theft Laws.


In most states, carjacking is defined as taking a vehicle from the driver by force or threat of force. In Pennsylvania, a person commits the crime of carjacking, also called robbery of a motor vehicle, by stealing or taking a motor vehicle in the presence of the vehicle’s driver, passenger, or owner. (18 Pa. Con. Stat. § 3702.) So, any car theft that occurs from a person who is driving or riding in a car is a carjacking, even if the defendant does not use threats or violence.


Joyriding, also called unauthorized use of an automobile, is also a crime in Pennsylvania. A person commits the crime of joyriding by operating a motor vehicle belonging to someone else without the owner’s permission. (18 Pa. Con. Stat. § 3928.) For example, a child who takes her father’s car and drives it to a friend’s home and then back again – knowing that she did not have her father’s permission to do so – has committed joyriding. For more information, see What is the Difference Between Joyriding and Stealing a Car?

Failing to Return a Rental Car

Some states have specific laws criminalizing the failure to return a rental car. In Pennsylvania, a person who fails to return a rental car could be charged with theft or joyriding.


Consent. One possible defense to theft or joyriding is that the defendants had (or believed they had) the owners' permission or consent to use the vehicle. Under Pennsylvania’s joyriding law, it is also a defense to that charge that the defendant reasonably believed that the owner would consent to the defendant’s use of the car if the owner knew of it.

Intent. It is also a defense to a charge of theft that the defendant did not intend to deprive the owner of the vehicle. In such a case the crime is joyriding, not motor vehicle theft.


Motor vehicle theft is a felony in the third degree, punishable by up to seven years in prison and up to $15,000 in fines. Carjacking is a felony of the first degree, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and up to $25,000 in fines. Joyriding is a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable by two years' in prison and up to $5,000 in fines. For more information on sentencing, see Pennsylvania Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences and Pennsylvania Felony Crimes by Class and Sentences.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

Any criminal conviction, including one related to motor vehicle theft, can have very serious consequences, such as time in prison or jail, hefty fines, job loss, and a criminal record. If you are charged with a crime, you should contact a criminal defense attorney in Pennsylvania. An experienced defense attorney will be able to tell you what to expect in court and make the strongest arguments on your behalf so that you can achieve the best outcome possible under the circumstances.

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