Auto Theft Laws in Texas

A person convicted of vehicle theft, carjacking, or joyriding can face state jail or prison time. Learn about these and other theft-related crimes and penalties in Texas.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated January 18, 2021

Texas law prohibits several activities relating to automobiles, including vehicle theft, joyriding, carjacking, and tampering with a VIN. Most crimes involving auto theft are charged under the general theft statute with some exceptions.

Texas Vehicle Theft

Texas law prohibits taking property that does not belong to you without the property owner's consent and with the intent to deprive the owner of the property. People who take another's property without the intent to return the property commit theft. For example, a fleeing criminal who "hotwires" a car in order to use it as a getaway car and then abandons it has committed theft.

Receiving property, knowing that it is stolen, is also theft in Texas. Under Texas law, the buyer of a car that is transferred without a proper title is presumed to know that the car is stolen and can be convicted of theft.

(Tex. Penal Code § 31.03 (2020).)

Penalties for Vehicle Theft

Thefts are classified under Texas law according to the value and nature of the property stolen. The more valuable the stolen property, the more severely the theft is punished. A prosecutor may rely on the fair market value of the property or its replacement value.

Penalties range from a class C misdemeanor to a first-degree felony. Theft of a vehicle worth less than $2,500 is a misdemeanor and any theft above that amount constitutes a felony. A person who steals a vehicle worth between $2,500 and $30,000 commits a state jail felony, punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and between 180 days and two years in jail. If the vehicle is valued between $30,000 and $150,000, the person faces third-degree felony charges, punishable by two to ten years imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000. You can find a further breakdown of theft penalties in our article on Texas Misdemeanor and Felony Theft.

(Tex. Penal Code §§ 12.21 and following, 31.03, 31.08 (2020).)

Unauthorized Use of a Motor Vehicle (Joyriding)

A person commits the crime of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle if they intentionally operate a motor vehicle without the consent of the owner. You might hear this being referred to as "joyriding." In contrast to the car thief, the joyrider intends to return the vehicle. For example, a teenager who sneaks out at night using his mother's car and returns home an hour later could be convicted of joyriding.

This offense is classified as a state jail felony. The punishment for a state jail felony theft can include a fine of no more than $10,000, imprisonment ranging from 180 days to two years, or both.

(Tex. Penal Code §§ 12.35, 31.07 (2020).)

Carjacking (Robbery)

Texas does not have a specific carjacking statute. Instead, carjacking is prosecuted under the state's robbery law. Carjacking—taking a car from the owner or driver by force or threat of force—is a serious crime.

This offense is classified as a second-degree felony, punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and imprisonment ranging from two to 20 years. Under certain circumstances, such as when serious bodily injury occurs or the defendant uses or exhibits a deadly weapon, the robbery becomes aggravated robbery. Aggravated robbery is a first-degree felony and carries a fine of up to $10,000 and imprisonment ranging from five to 99 years.

(Tex. Penal Code §§ 29.01 and following (2020).)

Other Vehicle Theft Laws

Texas also prosecutes less common vehicle-related offenses, including failure to return a rental car and attempting to alter a vehicle identification number (VIN).

Failing to return a rental car. This crime is generally prosecuted under Texas's general "theft of service" statute. The punishment depends on the value of the stolen vehicle.

Tampering with a VIN. Tampering with a VIN happens when a person purposely changes or removes the serial number from the vehicle. Such behavior is charged as a class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $4,000, one year or less in jail, or both.

(Tex. Penal Code §§ 12.21, 31.04, 31.11 (2020).)

Defenses to Auto Theft

The prosecutor has the burden to prove each and every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The two main failures to meet that burden in auto-related theft crimes are the elements of consent and intent.

Consent. In theft and joyriding prosecutions, a defendant could claim that they had (or believed they had) the owner's permission or consent to use the vehicle on the instance in question. Oftentimes, the defendant will argue they had implied consent. If the defendant has the owner's permission, there is no crime.

Intent. In theft cases, the defendant could alternately claim they did not intend to deprive the owner of the vehicle permanently, in which case the crime would be unauthorized use of a vehicle, not theft.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

A criminal conviction can have extremely serious consequences. In addition to imprisonment and a substantial fine, a conviction results in a criminal record, which makes it more difficult to obtain or keep a job or a professional license. If you are charged with a theft-related crime, contact an experienced Texas criminal defense attorney. An attorney will be able to tell you what to expect in court and how to best protect your rights.

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