South Carolina criminalizes motor vehicle theft under its general larceny statute. The penalties for such an offense depend on the circumstances of the crime and the value of the stolen vehicle. For other auto theft-related crimes, such as joyriding and carjacking, the law provides separate penalties.
A person who steals a motor vehicle commits larceny. The definition of larceny cannot be found in statute; rather, South Carolina retains the common law definition found in case law (described below).
In South Carolina, a person commits larceny by taking and carrying away another’s personal property with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of possession and to convert the goods to the use of the offender.
In order to show that a person intended to permanently deprive another of property, the prosecutor needs to show that the defendant intends to use the car in a way that prevents the owner from using it. For example, a person who steals a car and then abandons it could still be found guilty of theft, even if the car is recovered.
South Carolina, like many states, classifies motor vehicle thefts according to the value of the stolen property. The more valuable the automobile is, the more severe the punishment will be.
If the value of the stolen vehicle is $2,000 or less, the offender faces penalties of up to 30 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. If the stolen vehicle has a value of more than $2,000 but less than $10,000, the offender risks up to five years in prison or a fine at the discretion of the court (Class F felony). If the stolen vehicle is worth more than $10,000, the defendant faces up to 10 years in prison or a fine at the discretion of the court (Class E felony).
Failing to return a rental car within 72 hours after the rental period or using the vehicle in some way that is not permitted by the rental agreement subjects the offender to the same punishments as theft of a motor vehicle.
(S.C. Code §§ 16-13-30, -420 (2020); State v. Tindall, 50 S.E.2d 188 (S.C. 1948).)
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. South 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. The penalty for involvement in a motor vehicle chop shop depends on the nature of the offense. Punishments can include up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
(S.C. Code § 56-29-30 (2020).)
A person who breaks or attempts to break into a motor vehicle or its compartments with the intent of stealing the motor vehicle or anything of value from it or in the preparation of any criminal offense is guilty of a Class F felony. Such an offense subjects the defendant to up to five years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Damaging or tampering with a vehicle or its parts or components constitutes a misdemeanor. An offender faces up to 30 days in jail and a $100 fine.
(S.C. Code §§ 16-13-160, 16-21-90, 16-21-130 (2020).)
South Carolina also has laws against joyriding. A person commits the crime of joyriding by taking, driving, or using a motor vehicle without the consent of the owner and with the intent to deprive the owner of possession:
Joyriding is a misdemeanor and subjects the offender to up to three years of imprisonment. However, the punishment is less severe if the person takes the car only temporarily and for some reason unconnected to the commission of any crime. For example, a teenager who takes a parent’s car to drive to a friend’s house would face up to one year of incarceration (rather than three) and a $500 fine.
(S.C. Code § 16-21-60 (2020).)
Carjacking is a very serious offense. A person in South Carolina commits the crime of carjacking by taking (or attempting to take) a motor vehicle from someone else by force, violence, or intimidation while the victim is operating or inside a vehicle.
The law punishes offenders more severely if the crime results in great bodily injury. If a victim suffers great bodily injury, the defendant can be imprisoned for up to 30 years. Great bodily injury means bodily injury which creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious, permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ. If less serious or no injuries occur, the offender faces up to 20 years in prison.
(S.C. Code § 16-3-1075 (2020).)
There are two main defenses to motor vehicle theft.
Consent. The first commonly used defense is that the defendant had the owner’s permission or consent to use the vehicle or believed they had the owner’s consent to use the vehicle. Note that even if a person occasionally has permission to use a vehicle, the issue is whether the person had permission on the instance in question.
Intent. The second commonly used defense is that the defendant did not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle, in which case the crime would be joyriding, not motor vehicle theft.
A conviction for theft, carjacking, joyriding, or breaking into a vehicle can result in time in prison or jail, fines, and a criminal record, which can have a lasting, negative impact. If you face criminal charges, speak to an experienced South Carolina criminal defense attorney. An attorney can explain the law, answer your questions, and help you successfully navigate the criminal justice system.