Auto Theft Laws in Texas

Texas law prohibits motor vehicle theft and joyriding. To learn more about motor vehicle theft, see Grand Theft Auto.


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 others' 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 Ann. § 31.03.) For more general information on theft, see Texas Petty Theft and Other Theft Laws.

Classification of 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. (Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 31.08.)


Carjacking – taking a car from the owner or driver by force or threat of force – is a serious crime. In Texas, carjacking is prosecuted under the state’s robbery law.


Operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent is a crime, called unauthorized use of a vehicle or joyriding. In contrast to the thief, the joyrider intends to return the vehicle. (Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 31.07.) For example, a child who sneaks out at night using his mother’s car and returns home an hour later could be convicted of joyriding. For more information, see What is the Difference Between Joyriding and Stealing a Car?

Failing to Return a Rental Car

Failing to return a rental car could be prosecuted under Texas’s general theft statute.


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

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


The punishment for theft can range from a fine of up to $500 to life imprisonment. Most motor vehicle thefts will be punishable by 180 days to ten years in state jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Joyriding is a state jail felony, punishable by 180 days to two years in state jail and a fine of up to $10,000. For more information on sentencing, see Texas Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences and Texas Felony Crimes by Class and Sentences.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

A criminal conviction can have extremely serious consequences. In addition to time in state prison or jail and a substantial fine, a conviction can result in a criminal record, which can make it difficult to obtain or keep a job or a professional license. If you are charged with a crime, including theft or joyriding, the best way to avoid a conviction is to work with 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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