In California it’s illegal to steal from a locked car, a crime known in state law as “Auto Burglary.”

If you have been charged with committing auto burglary in California, there are some important things that you should understand about California’s auto burglary laws under Penal Code 459 PC. As with any criminal charges you may face, the most crucial first step in defending yourself and your rights is to find a competent and qualified criminal defense attorney.

Auto Burglary – California Penal Code 459 PC

In California, auto burglary is a subset of the more general crime of burglary which falls under Penal Code 459 PC and includes breaking into vehicles (auto burglary) as well as breaking into vehicles or buildings to commit felonies other than theft.

Auto burglary is defined as forcing entry into a locked automobile with the intent to steal the car (known as “grand theft auto”), steal property that is in the car (grand theft or petty theft), or commit any felony once inside the vehicle.

The two main elements, or defining factors, of the crime that must be proven true in order to make an auto burglary conviction are:

The defendant entered a locked vehicle

  • The doors and/or trunk of the vehicle must have been locked and broken into in order for the defendant to be guilty of auto burglary.
  • Forced entry into the vehicle may include using a device like a screwdriver to unlock the doors or trunk, breaking a window, or unlocking the car in any way without the permission of the vehicle’s owner.

The defendant entered the vehicle with the intent to commit petty theft or any felony crime.

  • You are guilty of “entering” the vehicle if any part of your body or an object that you are in control of goes inside of the vehicle.
  • The intent to commit theft or a California felony once inside of the vehicle is a crucial part of the definition of auto burglary. If you enter a vehicle without the intent to commit petty theft or a felony crime, you may be guilty of another crime but are not guilty of auto burglary.
  • You don not have to have succeeded in committing theft or a felony once inside of the vehicle, it must only be proven that you intended to do so in order to be convicted.

While the specific crime of auto burglary is defined by the factors described above, there are several California crimes that it is related to. Some of the crimes listed below may be committed alongside or as part of auto burglary (such as petty theft), and others are crimes that have some similarities but are defined by different factors and may fall under different penal codes.


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As was mentioned above, auto burglary is a subset of the broader category of burglary which falls under California Penal Code 459 PC. The broader definition of burglary is the entering of any building or residence (including vehicles) with the intent to commit a theft or felony crime once inside. In terms of sentencing, there are two types or degrees of burglary that carry different penalties:

  • First-degree burglary is when someone is living in the structure that is entered (it is inhabited). First degree burglary is a felony, the penalty for which is 2, 4, or 6 years in California state prison.
  • Second-degree burglary is a wobbler, which means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the details of the case. A misdemeanor second-degree burglary charge carries the penalty of up to a year in county jail. A felony conviction of second-degree burglary may result in probation or a county jail sentence of 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years.

Attempted burglary

According to the definition of burglary, you are guilty only if you enter a building, structure, or vehicle. However, if you had the intent to commit burglary but were unsuccessful, you may still be charged with attempted burglary under California Penal Code 663.

Grand theft and petty theft

Grand theft and petty theft are two of the crimes most often charged in addition to auto burglary, and both are defined as stealing someone else’s property.

Under Penal Code 487 PC, you are guilty of grand theft if any of the following factors are true:

  • The stolen property is work at least $950
  • The property was stolen directly from the owner’s possession
  • The property that was stolen was an automobile or firearm

Any other theft is considered to be petty theft. Grand theft is a wobbler charge and petty theft is always charged as a misdemeanor.

Grand theft auto

Grand theft auto is the other most common crime to be charged in conjunction with auto burglary. Grand theft auto is defined as taking another person’s vehicle without their permission. Although grand theft auto is a wobbler offense, it is most likely to be charged as a felony unless it is apparent that your intention was to keep the car, but to take it temporarily, which is known as “joyriding”.

Tampering with a vehicle

Under California Vehicle Code 10852 it is illegal to willfully injure or tamper with a vehicle or the contents of a vehicle or to break or remove any part of a vehicle without the owner’s consent. Vehicle tampering is a misdemeanor and a less serious charge than auto burglary. Your attorney may choose to try to have your charges reduced to vehicle tampering if you can show that you did not intend to commit theft or a felony once inside.


Under California Penal Code 463, you may be charged with looting if you are arrested for auto burglary during a state of emergency such as a riot, earthquake, or other disaster. Looting is a more serious crime than burglary and may be penalized by a county jail sentence of up to 3 years.

California Auto Burglary Penalties

In California, auto burglary is considered to be a form of second-degree burglary, which is a wobbler offense. Penalties will differ based on whether you are convicted of a misdemeanor or felony burglary charge.

  • The penalty for a misdemeanor auto burglary charge is up to 1 year in county jail.
  • The penalty for a felony auto burglary charge may be a jail sentence of 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years.

The exception to these penalties is the burglary of a trailer coach (such as an RV), which is considered to be an “inhabited” structure. In this case, it may be considered a felony first-degree burglary with penalties of 2, 4, or 6 years in California state prison.

If you’ve been charged with auto burglary in California, it is worth fighting those charges in order to avoid the penalties described above. Below are some of the possible defense strategies that your attorney may use to defend you.

The vehicle was unlocked

In order for a burglary to have taken place, the doors or trunk of the vehicle must have been locked. Although you may be charged with theft or another crime that may have taken place within the vehicle, this is an effective strategy for the dismissal of burglary charges.

Lack of intent

As noted in the definition of auto burglary outlined above, the prosecution must be able to prove that you had the intent to commit theft or a felony crime once inside the vehicle. Your attorney may be able to prove that you did not intend to commit any crime once inside the vehicle, and you may be able to have your auto burglary charges reduced or dropped.

Insufficient evidence

The prosecutor must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you unlawfully entered the vehicle with the intent to commit theft or a felony once inside. If the evidence is weak or circumstantial, it may be insufficient to warrant an auto burglary conviction.

Duress or threats

You are not guilty of auto burglary if you were forced to do so under duress or threat of your life. For example, if you are held at gunpoint and told to break into a car and commit theft, you should not be convicted of auto burglary.

False identification

If you have been falsely identified as the perpetrator of the crime, perhaps by a witness or another party, your attorney can help you to prove that you should not be convicted.

Many people who are charged with burglarizing a car assume that auto burglary charges are simple enough to handle without the help of an attorney. But auto burglary is a serious crime, and if you are convicted of violating California Penal Code 459 PC, you may be facing prison time, harsh fines, and a permanent mark on your criminal record. Don’t face these charges alone, as a California defense attorney with over 30 years of experiencing defending clients charged with theft crimes, I can put my knowledge and expertise to work for you. Contact my firm today to set up your consultation.