Auto Theft Laws in Washington

Like all states, Washington has its own state laws pertaining to motor vehicle theft and other related crimes.

Motor Vehicle Theft

Washington law defines theft as “to wrongfully obtain or exert unauthorized control over the property … of another … with intent to deprive him or her of such property.” (Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 9A.56.020.)

Motor vehicle theft is a specific type of theft wherein the stolen property is a vehicle. (Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 9A.56.065.)

Motor Vehicle Theft Elements

Motor vehicle theft has three “elements” (or parts), including (1) wrongfully obtaining or exerting unauthorized control over (2) someone else’s vehicle (3) with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle. All three elements must all be proved beyond a reasonable doubt before the defendant can be convicted of this crime. If the prosecuting attorney cannot prove one or more elements, the defendant may possibly be convicted of some lesser crime (such as joy riding, discussed below), but not motor vehicle theft.

These elements are discussed below.

Wrongfully obtaining or exerting unauthorized control

The first element requires that the defendant must have taken the vehicle without its owner’s authorization or permission. This can take many forms such as hopping into an unlocked vehicle with the keys in its ignition and driving, hotwiring a vehicle, or shifting a car into neutral and pushing it away. Notice that wrongfully obtaining a vehicle can (but does not have to) include breaking into, or otherwise damaged the car.

Someone else’s vehicle

The second element means that the vehicle was owned by someone other than the defendant when the defendant took the vehicle.

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 it.

(Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 9A.56.065.)

Motor Vehicle Theft Punishment

Motor vehicle theft is a class B felony; which incurs a fine of up to $20,000, up to ten years in prison, or both.

(Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 9A.56.065.)

Civil Damages for Motor Vehicle Theft

In addition to a criminal action, Washington provides for civil damages to allow the vehicle’s owner to recover the monetary cost of damages to the stolen vehicle and property inside, up to $5,000; plus the costs of the law suit, including reasonable attorney’s fees. (Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 9A.56.078.)

Carjacking

Washington law does not specifically address carjacking, but this behavior is nonetheless illegal, and is prosecuted as for robbery (forcibly taking property—in this case a vehicle— from its owner). Penalties include hefty fines and long prison terms, and increase if the defendant used a firearm during the offense. (Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 9A.56.190.)

Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle (“Joyriding”)

Unauthorized use of a motor vehicle—sometimes informally called “joyriding”—includes just that: using a car without the owner’s permission. It differs from motor vehicle theft in that the defendant does not necessarily have to have intended to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle.

Unauthorized use is a class C felony. Penalties include a fine of up to $10,000, up to five years in prison, or both.

And when the offense involved certain specified aggravating factors (such as removing or altering the vehicle’s license plates), the offense increases to a class B felony; which incurs a fine of up to $20,000, up to ten years in prison, or both. (Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 9A.56.070 & -075.)

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. The offense is a class B felony for rental vehicles worth $5,000 or more. It is a class C felony if the vehicle was worth at least $750 but less than $5,000. And the offense is a gross misdemeanor if the value was less than $750. (Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 9A.56.096.)

Talk to a Lawyer

Motor vehicle theft is a serious charge, and you should speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney if you have been charged with this or a related crime. A qualified attorney is the only person who can give you legal advice about how the law applies to the unique circumstances of your case, including the best course of legal action for you.

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