Auto Theft Laws in Wisconsin

Wisconsin law makes it a crime to steal a vehicle, or to drive it without the owner’s permission. This article discusses the applicable state laws, punishments, and related offenses.

Motor Vehicle Theft

In Wisconsin, motor vehicle theft occurs when a defendant intentionally takes, uses, transfers, or hides a vehicle without the owner’s consent, and with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the car. This definition is explained in more detail below. (Wi. Stat. Ann. § 943.20.)

Elements of Motor Vehicle Theft

If you take a closer look at the legal definition of theft, above, you will see that it is comprised of three parts (also called “elements”).

The prosecuting attorney’s job is to present evidence that proves each element beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant’s attorney will present evidence to rebut this evidence. If the judge (or jury) finds that the prosecution has not proved one or more elements, the defendant will not be convicted of theft (but may still face conviction for a lesser crime, such as joyriding, discussed below).

Intentionally taking, using, transferring, or hiding a vehicle without permission

First the prosecution must prove that the defendant purposely took, used, transferred (gave away or sold), or hid a vehicle knowing that the owner had not given the defendant permission to do so.

As you can see, this element may take many forms, but notice that it may, but does not have to involve breaking into or otherwise damaging the vehicle. Simply shifting an unlocked car into neutral and pushing it away (so long as the defendant does not have permission to do so) may satisfy this element.

Proof that the defendant used, gave away, sold, or hid the car could also satisfy this element

Someone else’s property

The second element deals with the ownership of the vehicle. Specifically, it must have been owned by someone other than the defendant at the time of the offense.

Intent to deprive the owner of the vehicle

Finally, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant took the vehicle with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the car. In other words, the defendant must have intended not to give the car back to its owner.

(Wi. Stat. Ann. § 943.20.)

Motor Vehicle Theft Punishment

As in several other state, Wisconsin punishes motor vehicle theft according to the value of the stolen vehicle. Stealing a car worth more than $10,000 is a Class G felony, which incurs a fine of up to $25,000, up to ten years in prison, or both.

Stealing a vehicle worth more than $5,000, but not more than $10,000 is a Class H felony; and incurs a fine of up to $10,000,up to six years in prison, or both. And if the vehicle was worth more than $2,500, but not more than $5,000, the offense is a Class I felony; which incurs a fine of up to $10,000, up to three years and six months in prison, or both.

The offense is a Class A misdemeanor when the stolen vehicle was worth $2,500 or less. Penalties include a fine of up to $10,000, up to nine months in jail, or both.

(Wi. Stat. Ann. § 943.20.)

Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle (“Joyriding”)

“Joyriding” is a common term used to describe unauthorized use of someone’s car, but (in contrast to motor vehicle theft) without the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle.

Depending on the circumstances of the offense, joyriding is punished as either a Class H felony or Class I felony. Penalties include fine of up to $10,000, up to three and a half years for a Class H felony (or up to six years for a Class I Felony) in prison, or both. (Wi. Stat. Ann. § 943.23.)

Carjacking

Carjacking occurs when a defendant armed with a dangerous weapon intentionally uses (or threatens to use) the weapon or other means of force to gain possession of a motor vehicle from its owner.

Carjacking is a Class C felony, which incurs a fine of up to $100,000, up to 40 years in prison, or both. (Wi. Stat. Ann. § 943.20(1g).)

Failure to Return a Rental Car

It is a crime to fail to return a rental car at the time called for in the rental contract. Considered a theft crime, it is punished in the same way—according to the value of the stolen car--- as for motor vehicle theft, discussed above. (Wi. Stat. Ann. § 943.20(e).)

Talk to a Lawyer

Only an attorney can give you legal advice about how Wisconsin law applies to the unique facts of your case. If you have been charged with theft or a related crime, contact a local attorney with experience practicing criminal defense law. Your attorney will be able to analyze your circumstances in light of the applicable law, and give you advice about your best course of legal action.

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