Auto Theft Laws in Washington

Like many states, a conviction for motor vehicle theft or a related crime in Washington can result in a lengthy prison sentence and hefty fines.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated March 17, 2021

Each state, including Washington, has its own laws pertaining to motor vehicle theft, including possession of a stolen vehicle, joyriding, carjacking, and failure to return a rental car. Washington's laws and the applicable punishments are discussed below.

Motor Vehicle Theft: Crimes and Penalties in Washington

Washington law makes it a crime to steal a motor vehicle or possess a stolen vehicle; make, use, or possess tools designed for stealing cars; or purposely fail to return a rental car. We'll discuss each in turn.

Motor Vehicle Theft

Motor vehicle theft has three elements (or parts), including (1) wrongfully obtaining or exerting unauthorized control over (2) the vehicle of another (3) with the intent to deprive the owner of the vehicle. The prosecutor must prove all three elements 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 joyriding, discussed below) but not motor vehicle theft.

A person who commits motor vehicle theft or possesses a stolen motor vehicle is guilty of a class B felony. Such an offender faces up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. A class B felony represents the most serious degree of theft penalties.

Make, Use, or Possess Tools Designed for Stealing Vehicles

It's also a crime to make, use, or possess any theft tool that is designed or commonly used for the commission of a motor vehicle-related theft. Such tools can include a Slim Jim, altered key, slide hammer, lock puller, or picklock. To be guilty, the person must also intend the tool to be used for the purpose of committing motor vehicle theft. So the AAA worker who's assisting a locked-out customer would not be guilty of this crime.

Making, using, or possessing motor vehicle theft tools constitutes a gross misdemeanor. Punishment for this offense includes up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Failure to Return Rental Car

A person who purposely fails to return a rental car at the time and in the manner agreed upon in the rental contract also commits a theft crime. The offender receives punishment based on 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.

(Wash. Rev. Code §§ 9A.20.021; 9A.56.020, .063, .065, .068, .096 (2020).)

Carjacking in Washington

Washington law prohibits carjacking under its robbery statute. A person commits carjacking by unlawfully taking a motor vehicle from the person of another or in their presence against their will by the use (or threatened use) of immediate force, violence, or fear of injury to the victim or someone else or their property.

The offender is guilty of first-degree robbery if they are armed with or display a deadly weapon or inflict bodily injury. First-degree robbery constitutes a class A felony and carries penalties of up to life in prison and a $50,000 fine. Any other carjacking is a class B felony, for which the defendant faces up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

(Wash. Rev. Code §§ 9A.56.190, .200, .210 (2020).)

Taking a Vehicle Without Permission (Joyriding) in Washington

Taking a motor vehicle without permission—sometimes called joyriding or TMV—includes just that: using a car without the owner's permission. It differs from motor vehicle theft in that the defendant does not necessarily intend to deprive the owner of the vehicle.

The law further breaks down this offense into two degrees. First-degree joyriding involves the defendant doing any of the following in the commission of the offense:

  • altering the vehicle in order to change its appearance
  • removing any parts intending to sell them
  • moving the vehicle across state lines or out of the country, or
  • being involved in a conspiracy to steal motor vehicles to sell.

All other joyriding crimes fall into the second-degree category, including voluntarily riding in a motor vehicle that was unlawfully taken.

First-degree joyriding constitutes a class B felony, which carries up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Second-degree joyriding is a class C felony and subjects the offender to up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

(Wash. Rev. Code §§ 9A.20.021; 9A.56.070, .075 (2020).)

Civil Damages for Motor Vehicle Theft in Washington

In addition to criminal charges, Washington provides a civil remedy that allows the vehicle's owner to recover costs for any damage done to the stolen vehicle and the property inside of it, up to $5,000. Additionally, the plaintiff can recover the costs of the lawsuit and reasonable attorneys' fees. These civil penalties also apply to the crime of joyriding.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.56.078 (2020).)

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 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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