Joyriding is taking a car without intending to keep it. In contrast, a person who steals a car (grand theft auto) does not intend to return it to the owner. Auto theft tends to be a more serious crime than joyriding but not in all states.
In most states, a person commits the offense of joyriding (sometimes called unauthorized use of a vehicle) by taking or operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent and:
For example, a teenager who sneaks out for the night and takes a parent’s car without permission has committed joyriding (temporary taking). A professional car thief who takes a car and brings it to a chop shop has committed grand theft auto (permanent taking).
Some states' theft laws don't distinguish between a person's intent to permanently or temporarily deprive an owner of their property and punish joyriding the same as any other auto theft.
A crime is a lesser-included offense if the crime is composed solely of some, but not all, of the elements of the greater crime—so that it is impossible to commit the greater offense without also committing the lesser. When one crime is a lesser-included offense of another, it can impact a criminal trial in several ways, including:
States disagree on whether joyriding is a lesser-included offense of auto theft. Some states have decided that joyriding is a lesser-included offense of auto theft because a person who joyrides merely lacks the intent to permanently deprive the owner. Other states have decided that the intent to permanently deprive an owner and the intent to temporarily deprive an owner are separate intents and so the crimes are separate. In a state where joyriding is not a lesser-included offense of auto theft, a defendant could conceivably be convicted of both crimes.
A common defense to the charge of joyriding is consent. If the owner of the car permitted the defendant’s use of the car, no crime was committed. Importantly, the fact that the owner has previously permitted the defendant to drive the car is not enough to establish consent. The relevant question, in a prosecution for the crime, is whether the owner consented to the defendant’s use of the car on that particular occasion.
Joyriding can be a felony or a misdemeanor. (Auto theft is often, although not always, a felony.) Generally, felonies are punishable by a prison term of one year or more, and misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in county or local jail (though a few states provide for two- or even three-year terms for misdemeanors). Both felony and misdemeanor convictions may also be punishable by a fine.
A person who takes a joyride and damages the vehicle or other property or causes injury to people might be responsible for restitution (paying for damage or medical costs caused by the crime). Learn more in What Is the Punishment for Joyriding?
If you are charged with joyriding or auto theft, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney about your case. An attorney can tell you what you can expect in court and the likely outcome of your case based on the law in your state, the facts of your case, and the assigned judge and prosecutor. A criminal conviction can have a lasting negative impact on your life and the best way to avoid a criminal conviction is to work with an experienced attorney.