Auto Theft Laws in Wisconsin

Wisconsin law makes it a crime to steal a vehicle or its parts, drive a vehicle without permission (“joyriding”), and break into a vehicle to steal. Learn more about the penalties for auto theft and related crimes.

Wisconsin law makes it a crime to steal a vehicle or to drive it without the owner's permission. Like many states, Wisconsin classifies its motor vehicle theft offenses according to the value of property stolen. For other auto theft-related crimes, such as carjacking and joyriding, the law provides penalties that increase based on the severity of harm or for repeat offenders.

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.

Motor Vehicle Theft Penalties

Wisconsin punishes motor vehicle theft according to the value of the stolen vehicle. Stealing a car worth more than $100,000 is a Class F felony, which incurs a fine of up to $25,000, 12 years and six months in prison, or both. If the car is worth more than $10,000 but less than $100,000, it 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.

(Wis. Stat. §§ 939.50, 939.51, 943.20 (2020).)

Theft of Vehicle Parts

Wisconsin makes it a separate crime to steal vehicle parts. If the defendant removes a major part of the vehicle without the consent of the owner, it's a Class I felony, punishable by up to three years and six months in prison and a $10,000 fine. Major parts include items such as the engine, transmission, hood, bumper, and any part that has a value of over $500. If the defendant removes any other part not considered a major component, it is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine.

(Wis. Stat. § 943.23 (2020).)

Operating a Vehicle Without Consent ("Joyriding")

"Joyriding" is a common term used to describe a temporary, unauthorized use of someone's car—referred to as operating a vehicle without the owner's consent in Wisconsin. This crime differs from a motor vehicle theft in that theft involves an intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle, while joyriding involves an intent to temporarily take a vehicle.

Penalties

Depending on the circumstances of the offense, first-time joyriding offenses are punished as either a Class H or Class I felony. Harsher penalties exist for repeat offenders. (Taking part of a joyride as a passenger also constitutes an offense, a Class A misdemeanor.)

Class H felony. A person who intentionally takes and drives any vehicle without the consent of the owner commits a Class H felony, punishable by up to six years in prison and a $10,000 fine. For a second or subsequent offense, a defendant will face a Class F felony conviction which carries up to 12 years and six months in prison and a $25,000 fine.

Class I felony. A person who intentionally drives or operates any vehicle without the consent of the owner commits a Class I felony, punishable by up to three years and six months in prison and a $10,000 fine. However, if this is a defendant's second or subsequent offense, it becomes a Class G felony, with penalties including a fine of no more than $25,000, imprisonment for up to ten years, or both.

Note the subtle difference between the two types of joyriding. The difference is the word taking. If the defendant wasn't the person to take the car but is still driving the vehicle without the owner's consent, he commits the lower-level felony.

Affirmative Defense to Operating a Vehicle Without Owner's Consent

A defendant who abandons the vehicle without damage within 24 hours after the vehicle was taken might be able to get the charge reduced to a Class A misdemeanor. However, it's up to the defendant to prove these facts. If the defendant leaves the vehicle in an empty field with no one around, it becomes more difficult to prove it was abandoned within the acceptable time frame, unless there were security cameras in the area.

(Wis. Stat. § 943.23 (2020).)

Carjacking

A person who uses force or threatens to use force when taking a vehicle commits carjacking, a Class E felony, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. If, however, the defendant is armed with a dangerous weapon and intentionally uses (or threatens to use) the weapon or other means of force to take the vehicle, it is a Class C felony, which is punishable by up to 40 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

(Wis. Stat. § 943.23 (2020).)

Entry Into a Locked Vehicle

A person who intentionally enters the interior of a locked vehicle or any enclosed portion within the vehicle (such as a glove compartment or trunk) without the owner's consent, and with the intent to steal from it, can be charged with entry into a locked vehicle. Violation of this statute is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine. (Wis. Stat. § 943.11 (2020).)

Failure to Return a Rental Car

It is also a crime to fail to return a rental car at the time called for in the rental contract. If you carefully read the fine print of any vehicle rental agreement, you will see this spelled out. 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. (Wis. Stat. § 943.20 (2020).)

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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