Auto Theft Laws in Pennsylvania

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

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated May 21, 2021

Stealing a car or other motor vehicle is a serious crime in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania also criminalizes other actions involving the unlawful use of a motor vehicle, including carjacking and joyriding.

Vehicle Theft in Pennsylvania

Under Pennsylvania's theft statute, a person commits theft of a motor vehicle by taking, transferring, or exercising control over a vehicle that belongs to someone else without permission and with the intent to deprive the owner of their vehicle. It doesn't matter if the thief intends to keep, sell, or otherwise dispose of the car. If the thief doesn't intend for the owner to get their vehicle back, the act is theft. For example, a person who takes another person's car from a parking lot and then abandons it has committed theft. A motor vehicle can include any car, airplane, motorboat, sports utility vehicle, truck, or other motor-propelled vehicles.

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 and not its value. Motor vehicle theft constitutes a felony in the third degree, punishable by up to seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine. The same possible punishment applies whether the car is worth $1,000 or $50,000.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 1101, 1103, 3903, 3921 (2020).)

Robbery of a Motor Vehicle (Carjacking) in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, a person commits the crime of carjacking—called robbery of a motor vehicle—by stealing or taking a motor vehicle in the presence of the vehicle's driver, passenger, or owner. Unlike many other states, the crime of robbery of a motor vehicle does not require proof of use or threat of force in Pennsylvania. As such, any car theft that occurs from a person who is driving or riding in a car constitutes a carjacking (a first-degree felony), even if the defendant does not use threats or violence. A carjacker can receive up to 20 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 1101, 1103, 3702 (2020).)

Unauthorized Use of Vehicles (Joyriding) in Pennsylvania

Unauthorized use of an automobile, commonly called joyriding, 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. For example, a teenager who takes their father's car and drives it to a friend's home and then back again—knowing that she did not have their father's permission to do so—has committed joyriding, a second-degree misdemeanor. A joyrider faces up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 1101, 1104, 3928 (2020).)


Two common defenses exist to vehicle-theft-related crimes.

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's 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 permanently deprive the owner of their vehicle. In such a case, the crime is joyriding, not motor vehicle theft.

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, contact a criminal defense attorney in Pennsylvania. An experienced defense attorney can tell you what to expect in court and make the strongest arguments on your behalf so that you achieve the best outcome possible under the circumstances.

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