Auto Theft Laws in Virginia

Each state, including Virginia, has its own laws pertaining to motor vehicle theft and related offenses. Virginia’s laws and the applicable punishments are discussed below.

Motor Vehicle Theft

Motor vehicle theft that occurs in Virginia is prosecuted under the state “Grand-” and “Petit Larceny” laws. While the laws themselves do not define “larceny,” courts generally define it as the unlawful taking of property—in this case, a vehicle— that belongs to someone else, done with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property.

As you can see, this definition contains three parts, which are also called “elements.” To obtain a conviction, the prosecutor must present evidence that shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant (1) unlawfully took (2) a vehicle that belonged to someone else (3) with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle. These elements are discussed in more depth below.

Without sufficient proof of all three elements, the prosecutor may be able to obtain a conviction for some lesser crime (such as joy riding, described below), but not motor vehicle theft.

Unlawfully taking

While “to take” has an easily understood, common meaning; “to exercise control” may be less clear. It is another way of saying that the defendant was in control of the vehicle, and includes (for example) driving the car or parking it in the defendant’s garage.

Someone else’s vehicle

This element requires that the vehicle was owned by someone other than the defendant when the defendant took the car.

Intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle

“Intent to permanently deprive” means intent to never return the property. This is in contrast, for example, to joyriding (discussed below), where a defendant takes a car owned by someone else, but fully intended to return the car. (Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-581.)


Stealing a vehicle worth less than $200 is petit larceny, a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,500, up to 12 months in jail, or both.

When the stolen vehicle’s value exceeds $200, the offense is charged as a grand larceny. Grand larceny is usually punished as a felony in Virginia, which involves imprisonment for at least one year (and up to 20 years). However, Virginia law also allows juries and judges the discretion to punish grand larceny as a misdemeanor. An offense might be punished in this way, for example, if the vehicle was worth only a bit more than $200 and the defendant has no previous criminal convictions. When punished as a misdemeanor, penalties include a fine of up to $2,500, up to one year in jail, or both. (Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-95 & -96.)

Read more about theft law in Virginia, including more information about punishment, in Virginia Petty Theft and Other Theft Laws.


In Virginia, carjacking occurs when a defendant takes someone’s vehicle from that person’s possession through use of violence or a threat of violence (such as by displaying a firearm) that puts 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 return it in five minutes.

Carjacking is a felony punishable by at least fifteen years (and up to life) in prison.

(Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-581.)

Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle (“Joyriding”)

“Joyriding” describes taking, driving, or using a vehicle temporarily and with the intent to return it, but without the owner’s consent.

In Virginia, a defendant cannot presume that he may currently use someone’s vehicle without asking simply because the owner has allowed the defendant to use the car at some point in the past.

And a defendant who assists or is an accomplice in joyriding is treated as a principal offender, and will also be subject to the following penalties.

When the vehicle was worth $200 or more, penalties include at least one year (and up to five years) in prison; or a fine of up to $2,500, up to one year in jail, or both. And when the vehicle was worth less than $200, the offense is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which incurs a fine of up to $2,500, up to one year in jail, or both.

(Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-102.)

Failure to Return a Rental Car

It is a crime to purposely fail to return a rental car at the time and in the manner agreed upon in the rental contract. This offense is punished according to the value of the stolen vehicle, as for motor vehicle theft (described above). (Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-117.)

Talk to a Lawyer

If you have been charged with a motor vehicle 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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