Merely riding in a stolen car, without more, cannot result in a criminal conviction. However, a person who rides in a stolen car knowing that the car has been stolen (or under circumstances where the passenger should have known that the car was stolen) could be convicted of a crime, as can any person who aids or assists in stealing a car or driving a stolen car.
A person commits the crime of theft by taking or exerting control over a vehicle that belongs to someone else without permission and with the intent to deprive the owner of the vehicle. In some states, possession of property that the defendant knows has been stolen is also a type of theft. In other states, receiving stolen property is a separate offense. For example, a person who buys a car, knowing that car has been stolen, could be convicted of a crime. For both theft and receiving stolen property convictions, there must be some evidence that the defendant exerted control over the property, even if someone else also exerted control over the property.
A passenger in a stolen car could be convicted of theft if there is evidence that the passenger exercised some control over the car and knew that it was stolen. For example, a passenger who directs his girlfriend to steal a car and drive the stolen car to a friend’s house could possibly be convicted of theft. For more information on theft, see Grand Theft Auto.
Joyriding is a less serious offense than theft. A person commits joyriding by driving or using another person’s vehicle without permission. In some states, the prosecutor must also prove that the defendant intended to deprive the owner of the car temporarily. The difference between theft and joyriding is that the joyrider intends to return the car.
Some joyriding statutes are broad enough to include not only the driver of the car, but any person who is in the car without permission from the owner. In order to be convicted, the person must know that he or she does not have the owner’s permission to be in the vehicle. For example, suppose a friend picks up defendant in a truck the defendant knows the friend has taken without permission. The two then use the truck to commit a robbery and split the money before returning the truck. Both friends could possibly be convicted of joyriding. For more information on this crime, see What is the Difference Between Joyriding and Stealing a Car?
Usually, a passenger cannot be convicted of any crime unless he or she knew or should have known that the vehicle was stolen or used without the owner’s permission. For example, a hitchhiker who was picked up in a stolen car could not be convicted of an offense if there is no evidence that the hitchhiker had any reason to believe the vehicle was stolen. By contrast, if two friends are picked up in a stolen car, and the passenger knew that the driver did not own a car, then the passenger might be convicted of a crime.
Joyriding is usually a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine. Auto theft is a much more serious crime, punishable by as much as ten years (or more) in prison and fine. For both joyriding and theft, the severity of the defendant’s penalty will often depend on the degree of the defendant’s involvement in the crime. The mastermind behind a car theft will often be sentenced to a longer sentence than a friend who just goes along for the ride.
A conviction for theft or joyriding can have serious consequences, including time in prison or jail, a fine, and a criminal record. If you are charged with any crime, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can tell you what to expect in court and help you successfully navigate the criminal justice system.