Auto Theft Laws in Virginia

Like many states, a conviction for motor vehicle larceny, carjacking, or a related crime in Virginia can result in a serious prison sentence and substantial fines.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated March 01, 2021

Each state, including Virginia, has its own laws pertaining to motor vehicle larceny and related offenses, including joyriding, carjacking, and failing to return a rental car. Virginia's laws and the applicable punishments are discussed below.

Motor Vehicle Larceny Penalties in Virginia

The state of Virginia prosecutes motor vehicle larceny under the state's grand and petit larceny laws. A person commits motor vehicle larceny when they wrongfully or fraudulently take another's motor vehicle without permission and with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle. (Failure to return a rental car at the time and in the manner agreed upon in the rental contract also constitutes larceny.)

Elements of the Crime

As you can see, the definition of vehicle larceny contains three parts or "elements." To obtain a conviction, the prosecutor must present evidence that shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed (1) an unauthorized taking of (2) a vehicle that belonged to someone else (3) with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle. Without sufficient proof of all three elements, the prosecutor may be able to obtain a conviction for some lesser crime (such as joyriding, described below) but not vehicle larceny.


The punishment for stealing a vehicle depends on its value.

Petit larceny. Stealing a vehicle worth less than $1,000 is petit larceny, a class 1 misdemeanor. A person who commits petit larceny faces penalties of up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Grand larceny. If the value of the stolen vehicle is $1,000 or more, the defendant commits grand larceny—a felony. Such an offender is subject to imprisonment for one to 20 years. But the law gives the judge or jury discretion to impose misdemeanor penalties of up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine, which might occur if the offender doesn't have prior convictions or the value of the vehicle was just over $1,000.

(Va. Code §§ 18.2-10, -11, -95, -96, -117 (2020).)

Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle ("Joyriding")

A person commits joyriding through the unauthorized taking, driving, or using of a vehicle with the intent to temporarily deprive the owner of its possession. Joyriding differs from larceny in that the joyrider does not intend to permanently steal the automobile but rather intends to temporarily take it. The teenager who takes a sibling's car without permission for a night out commits unauthorized use of a vehicle.

In Virginia, simply because the owner has allowed the defendant to use the car at some point in the past doesn't mean a defendant can presume continued use of the vehicle without asking.

If the value of the joyridden vehicle is $1,000 or more, the defendant commits a Class 6 felony. Class 6 felonies are wobblers, which means they can be punished as a felony (one to five years of incarceration) or as a misdemeanor (up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine). However, if the vehicle holds a value of less than $1,000, the offense constitutes a Class 1 misdemeanor. The guilty offender faces up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. A person who assists in or is a party to the joyriding faces the same penalties as the principal offender.

(Va. Code §§ 18.2-10, -11, -102 (2020).)


In Virginia, a person commits carjacking by intentionally taking control of a vehicle from another's possession or control through the use of violence or a threat of violence, including by displaying a firearm or deadly weapon, striking, beating or strangling another, or putting the person in fear of serious bodily harm.

The offense is considered a carjacking regardless of whether the defendant intended to permanently or temporarily deprive the owner of the vehicle. In other words, so long as there is a taking that involves violence (or threat of violence), the crime is a carjacking, even if the defendant only intended to drive the car down the block and ditch it.

A person who commits carjacking faces a felony penalty of 15 years to life in prison.

(Va. Code § 18.2-58.1 (2020).)

Talk to a Lawyer

If you have been charged with a motor vehicle larceny or a related crime, contact a local lawyer with experience in criminal defense. Only a qualified attorney can answer your questions about how Virginia law applies to the unique circumstances of your case and recommend the best course of legal action for you.

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