Auto Theft Laws in Tennessee

Motor vehicle theft, joyriding, and carjacking are all crimes in Tennessee and, depending on the circumstances, a conviction for theft or a related crime could result in a serious prison sentence. For more information on motor vehicle theft, see Grand Theft Auto.

Theft

Under Tennessee’s laws, a person commits theft by taking or exercising control over property that belongs to someone else without the owner’s permission and with the intent to deprive the owner of the property. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-14-103.) 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 Petty Theft and Other Theft Laws.

Classifying theft. Many states, including Tennessee, classify and punish thefts based on the value of the property stolen. People who steal more valuable property are punished more harshly. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-14-105.)

Joyriding

Tennessee law also prohibits joyriding – taking another person’s vehicle without permission. The difference between joyriding and theft is that in joyriding, the defendant does not intend to deprive the owner of the property but intends to return the property. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-14-106.) 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 has committed joyriding. For more information, see What is the Difference Between Joyriding and Stealing a Car?

Failing to Return a Rental Car

A person who fails to return a rental car at the end of the rental agreement period could be prosecuted under Tennessee’s theft law.

Carjacking

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

  • by force
  • by intimidation, or
  • with a deadly weapon.

(Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-404.) For example, a person who uses a gun to force a driver out of car and take the car has committed carjacking.

Defenses

In both theft and joyriding cases, a commonly asserted defense is that the defendant had (or believed that he or she 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. In theft cases, another commonly asserted defense is that the defendant did not intend to deprive the owner of the vehicle and so the crime is joyriding, not theft.

Punishment

Theft of property worth $500 or less and joyriding are Class A misdemeanors, which are punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail, up to $2,500 in fines, or both. Theft of property worth more than $500 but less than $1,000 is a Class E felony. Class E felonies, the least serious felonies in Tennessee, are punishable by one to six years in prison, as well as a fine of up to $3,000. Theft of property worth $1,000 or more but less than $10,000 is a Class D felony, punishable by two to 12 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $5,000. Theft of property worth between $10,000 and $60,000 is a Class C felony, punishable by a prison term of three to 15 years, as well as fines of up to $10,000. Theft of property worth $60,000 or more but less than $250,000 is a Class B felony, as is carjacking. In Tennessee, a class B felony is punishable by eight to 30 years’ imprisonment, as well as a fine of up to $25,000. For more information on sentencing, see Tennessee Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences and Tennessee Felony Crimes by Class and Sentences.

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 be able to 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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