Auto Theft Laws in Texas

A person convicted of vehicle theft, carjacking, or joyriding can face state jail or prison time.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated March 22, 2024

Texas law prohibits several activities relating to automobiles, including vehicle theft, catalytic converter theft, joyriding, carjacking, and tampering with a VIN.

Vehicle Theft Laws and Penalties in Texas

A person who steals a vehicle can face serious penalties for theft in Texas. Knowingly receiving a stolen vehicle also constitutes theft.

Is Stealing a Vehicle a Felony in Texas?

Most vehicle thefts are felonies in Texas. Penalties for theft are based primarily on the value of the property. The more valuable the stolen property, the more severely the theft is punished. Theft of a vehicle worth less than $2,500 is a misdemeanor (unless the person has priors), and any theft above that amount constitutes a felony.

A prosecutor may rely on the property's fair market value or replacement value. Having prior theft convictions can increase the penalty, as can stealing from vulnerable victims.

What Are the Penalties for Stealing a Vehicle in Texas?

Penalties for vehicle theft range from a misdemeanor to a first-degree felony.

Misdemeanors. Stealing a vehicle worth less than $2,500 is a misdemeanor offense, unless the person has priors (see below). Misdemeanors carry penalties of up to one year in jail and $4,000 in fines.

State jail felony. A person commits a state jail felony by: (1) stealing a vehicle worth between $2,500 and $30,000 or (2) stealing a vehicle worth less than $2,500 and having two or more prior theft convictions. State jail felonies carry fines of up to $10,000 and jail sentences of 180 days and two years.

Third-degree felony. If the vehicle is valued between $30,000 and $150,000, the person faces third-degree felony charges, punishable by 2 to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000.

Second-degree felony. A person faces second-degree felony charges for stealing a vehicle worth more than $150,000. This felony carries 2 to 20 years of prison time and a $10,000 fine.

Enhanced penalties. The offense level increases to the next higher category if the person steals a vehicle from an elderly individual (65 or older) or a nonprofit organization. (A second-degree felony would bump up to a first-degree felony, punishable by 5 years to life in prison.)

(Tex. Penal Code §§ 31.03, 31.08 (2024).)

Catalytic Converter Theft Laws and Penalties in Texas

Stealing a catalytic converter from a vehicle results in felony penalties, even if the part isn't worth much. With the rise in catalytic converter thefts, lawmakers created several felony penalties to address the trend. These crimes typically carry state jail felony penalties of 180 days to 2 years of jail time or third-degree felony penalties of 2 to 10 years of prison time.

Theft of a Catalytic Converter

Under Texas' theft laws, a person who steals a catalytic converter faces state jail felony penalties if the cost of replacing the stolen property is less than $30,000. If the replacement cost is more, the above theft penalties apply.

These penalties increase by one degree if the person stealing the catalytic converter possessed a firearm while committing the offense or stole the part from an elderly victim or nonprofit organization.

Criminal Mischief Involving Removal of a Catalytic Converter

A person who damages a vehicle while unlawfully removing or attempting to remove a catalytic converter also commits a felony. If the damage amounts to less than $30,000, the crime is a state jail felony. It's a felony of third degree if the damage is $30,000 to $150,000.

Unauthorized Possession of a Catalytic Converter

A person who knowingly possesses a catalytic converter that was unlawfully removed from a vehicle also commits a state jail felony. The offense increases to a third-degree felony if the defendant:

  • has a prior conviction for the same offense
  • conspired with the person who unlawfully removed or stole the part, or
  • possessed a firearm during the offense.

(Tex. Penal Code §§ 28.03, 31.03, 31.21 (2024).)

Unauthorized Use of a Motor Vehicle Laws and Penalties in Texas (Joyriding)

A person commits the crime of "unauthorized use of a motor vehicle" if they intentionally operate a motor vehicle without the owner's consent. This offense is commonly called 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, punishable by 180 days to 2 years of jail time and a $10,000 fine.

(Tex. Penal Code §§ 12.35, 31.07 (2024).)

Carjacking Laws and Penalties in Texas

Texas doesn't 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 2 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 5 to 99 years or life.

(Tex. Penal Code §§ 29.01, 29.02, 29.03 (2024).)

Other Vehicle Theft Laws in Texas

Texas also prosecutes the following vehicle-related offenses.

Burglary of a vehicle. Unlawfully breaking into or entering a vehicle to steal something is considered a burglary offense. The offense is a class A misdemeanor, unless the defendant has two or more prior convictions. In that case, the crime is a state jail felony. (If the person damages the vehicle, the person could also face criminal mischief charges.)

Failure 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.

Tampers 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.

(Tex. Penal Code §§ 12.21, 31.04, 31.11 (2024).)

Defenses to Auto Theft Crimes in Texas

Defendants charged with vehicle theft or a related crime have several defenses available to them.

Innocence. A defendant might argue that the prosecutor has the wrong person. They could raise an alibi defense, challenge an eyewitness identification, or otherwise establish their innocence.

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 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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