Auto Theft Laws in Tennessee

Tennessee law prohibits several activities relating to automobiles, including motor vehicle theft, joyriding, and carjacking. Many offenses carry felony penalties that can result in prison time.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated February 22, 2021

Depending on the circumstances, a conviction for vehicle theft or a related crime could result in a serious prison sentence. The circumstances of the crime determine the applicable penalties.

Motor Vehicle Theft

Under Tennessee law, a person commits theft 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. Tennessee's theft law applies both to a person who steals cars to sell them and to the owner of the "chop shop" who buys cars knowing that they have been stolen. For more general information on theft, see Tennessee Laws on Misdemeanor and Felony Theft and Shoplifting.

Penalties for Vehicle Theft

Thefts are classified under Tennessee law according to the value of the stolen property. The more valuable the property is, the more severe the punishment will be.

Class A Misdemeanor Theft

Auto theft constitutes a Class A misdemeanor if the stolen vehicle has a value of $1,000 or less. In such a case, the offender faces penalties of up to 11 months and 29 days of incarceration and a $2,500 fine.

Class E Felony Theft

A person commits a Class E felony when the value of the stolen vehicle involved is more than $1,000 but less than $2,500. The punishment for a Class E felony includes imprisonment for one to six years and a $3,000 fine.

Class D Felony Theft

Theft becomes a Class D felony if the value of the vehicle stolen is at least $2,500 but less than $10,000. Owning or operating a chop shop also falls under this felony classification. A Class D felony carries two to 12 years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Owning or operating a chop shop carries a mandatory minimum fine of $3,500.

Class C Felony Theft

Stealing a vehicle valued at $10,000 or more but less than $60,000 results in a Class C felony. Upon conviction, a person is subject to three to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Class B Felony Theft

An offender is guilty of a Class B felony when the value of the stolen automobile is $60,000 or more but less than $250,000. The defendant faces eight to 30 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

(Tenn. Code §§ 39-14-103, -105, 40-35-111, 55-5-203 (2020).)


Tennessee law also prohibits joyriding—taking another person's vehicle without permission. Joyriding and vehicle theft differ in that a joyrider does not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the property but rather intends to return the property. For example, a person who takes a neighbor's sports car without permission and drives it around the block before parking it back in the neighbor's driveway commits joyriding. If that person did not intend to return the neighbor's car, the crime would be theft.

A person who commits joyriding is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor and faces up to 11 months and 29 days of incarceration and a $2,500 fine. For more information, see What Is the Difference Between Joyriding and Stealing a Car?

(Tenn. Code §§ 39-14-106, 40-35-111 (2020).)


Carjacking is a more serious crime than theft or joyriding. An offender commits carjacking by taking a car away from another person (a driver or a passenger) by use of:

  • force or intimidation, or
  • a deadly weapon.

For example, a person who uses a gun to force a driver out of their vehicle and steals the car has committed carjacking. Carjackers are guilty of a Class B felony and subject to eight to 30 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

(Tenn. Code §§ 39-13-404, 40-35-111 (2020).)

Defenses to Vehicle Theft Crimes

In both motor vehicle theft and joyriding cases, defendants commonly assert the defense that they believed they had the owner's permission to use the vehicle. The issue is whether the defendant had the owner's consent to drive the car on the particular instance in question. Having past permission doesn't necessarily equate to permission in that instance.

In theft cases, defendants often use the defense that they did not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle and so the crime is joyriding, not theft.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

Any criminal conviction can have serious and lasting consequences. If you are accused of or charged with committing a crime in Tennessee, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney. A lawyer will tell you how your case is likely to fare in court, depending on the assigned judge and prosecutor, the law, and the facts of your case. An attorney can help you navigate the criminal justice system so that you can obtain the best possible outcome.

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