Despite the popularity of the video game, California law does not play games when it comes to grand theft auto and other auto theft offenses. If you are charged with grand theft auto, you may be facing some serious penalties. 

Grand theft auto laws, offenses, and penalties in California

If you steal a car or other vehicle in the state of California, you may be charged with one of two possible offenses. The two offenses for vehicle theft are:

  1. Grand theft auto – Penal Code 487(d)(1)
  2. “Joyriding” or the unlawful taking or driving of a vehicle – Penal Code 10851 VC

The important difference between these two offenses is whether or not you intended to keep the car permanently, or for a substantial period of time. If your intention was to take the vehicle for a brief period of time (a short drive, for example), then you may likely be charged with joyriding. However, if it appears that it was your intention to keep the car permanently or for a long time period, you may be charged with grand theft auto.

California law enforcement takes vehicle theft crimes very seriously. Because of this, these crimes are prosecuted very seriously and also result in a high percentage of recovered vehicles (85% in 2011).

What is Grand Theft Auto?

Grand theft auto is a form of grand theft and, thus, any time the property stolen in a case of grand theft is an automobile, the defendant is charged with grand theft auto.

Grand theft auto implies the intention to permanently steal the vehicle or deprive the owner of the vehicle. This may include using the stolen car as a getaway car from another crime, stealing a car in order to strip it or sell it for parts, or intending to steal a car permanently but later abandoning it somewhere.

In order to be convicted of grand theft auto, the prosecutor must prove that you:

  • Stole a vehicle that was someone else’s property
  • You intended to deprive the owner of the car permanently or for a significant time period
  • The owner did not give you permission to take the vehicle
  • You moved the vehicle and retained it for a period of time (the distance moved may be short and the time period brief)

Although the most common form of grand theft auto is by larceny (the typed of scenarios described above), it is also possible to be convicted of grand theft auto for doing any of the following:

  • Acquiring someone’s car through embezzlement – stealing a car that has entrusted to you by the owner
  • Tricking someone into giving you their car
  • Lying or deceiving someone in order to acquire their car (also known as using false pretenses)

The penalties for grand theft auto under Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC are the same as the penalties for grand theft. Grand theft auto is a “wobbler” offense in California, which means that it may be charges as either a felony or a misdemeanor depending on the circumstances of the crime and the criminal history of the defendant.

If charges with a felony grand theft auto offense, the penalties are:

  • From 16 months to 3 years of jail time, and/or
  • A fine of up to $10,000

It is also possible for the penalties to be enhanced if the car that was stolen is of high monetary value. This enhanced penalty may include 1 additional year of jail time (for vehicles worth more than $65,000) or 2 additional years of jail time (for vehicles worth more than $200,000).

What is joyriding?

The unlawful taking or unlawful driving of a vehicle, also known as “joyriding,” falls under Vehicle Code Section 10851 and is a lesser offense than grand theft auto. Although it is also, technically, a wobbler offense, it is typically charged as a misdemeanor for first-time offenders.

You may be charged with joyriding instead of grand theft auto if you only intended to take the car for a short period of time. There is no minimum length of time for which you have to unlawfully take or drive a vehicle in order to be charged with joyriding, even if the period of time is very short.

If you are charged with a misdemeanor joyriding offense, you may face the following penalties:

  • Up to 1 year of jail time, and/or
  • A fine of up to $5,000

If you are charges with a felony joyriding offense, you may face the following penalties:

  • 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years of jail time, and/or
  • A fine of up to $10,000

You may face harsher penalties for stealing certain types of vehicles. You may be charged with felony joyriding and face penalties of 2-4 years of jail time and a fine of up to $10,000 in the following circumstances:

  • If the vehicle you stole had been modified in order to be used by a disabled person
  • If the the vehicle you stole was an ambulance that was on an emergency call
  • If the vehicle you stole was a marked law enforcement or fire vehicle that was on an emergency call

Additionally, if you have any prior vehicle theft convictions on you record (including joyriding, grand theft, or stealing cargo), you may be sentenced to 2-4 years of jail time and a fine of up to $10,000.

Other related offenses

There are several other vehicle-theft related offenses that you may be charged with in addition to or instead of grand theft auto or joyriding. These other offenses are:

 

  • Carjacking – Carjacking is the use of physical force or fear and intimidation in order to get someone to give you their vehicle. Carjacking is a felony charge with a penalty of 3, 5, or 9 years in a California state prison. Because carjacking is a violent offense, it is also included under California’s Three Strikes Law.
  • Receiving stolen property – Under California’s receiving stolen property law, Penal Code 496 PC, it is illegal to buy, receive, sell, conceal, or withhold any property that you know to be stolen, including a vehicle. You cannot, however, be convicted of both receiving and stealing the same property and are therefore very unlikely to be charged with grand theft auto and receiving stolen property. You may, however, be charged with receiving stolen property in addition to joyriding if you buy or receive a car that you know is stolen and drive it for a brief length of time.
  • Petty theft – If the car that you are accused of stealing is worth $950 or less, you will not be charged with grand theft auto, but with petty theft. Petty theft is a misdemeanor charge with penalties of up to 6 months of jail time and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
  • Burglary – Burglary is defined as the entering of a building or dwelling with the intent to commit a crime once inside. In the case of vehicle-related crimes, this might include illegally entering a garage in order to steal a car, or breaking into the car itself in order to steal it. Burglary is a felony charge and carries a penalty of 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years of jail time (and significantly more jail time if the dwelling that is burglarized in inhabited at the time).

 

Legal defenses for grand theft auto

If you have been charged with grand theft auto, a California criminal defense attorney who is experienced in theft crimes may be able to help you avoid a conviction or have your charges reduced. Some of the legal defenses that might be used in a grand theft auto case include:

 

  • Lack of intent – In order to be convicted of grand theft auto, the prosecutor must prove that you intended to steal the vehicle. If you mistakenly stole or acquired the car or did not intend to steal it, this may be a useful defense in your case. This defense does not work in cases of joyriding, however, as the offense is not defined by an intent to steal the vehicle.
  • Claim of right – You cannot be convicted of joyriding in or stealing a car that belongs to you. If you can prove that the vehicle is yours or that you had a good faith belief that the vehicle was your own property (even if it was not your property), you may be able to use this defense.
  • Consent from the owner – You are not guilty of grand theft auto or joyriding if the owner of the vehicle consented, or gave you permission, to take the vehicle. In the case of joyriding, you may use consent as a defense even if you gained consent fraudulently or by tricking the owner.
  • False accusations – If you have been accused of stealing a car but did not do so or intent to do so, your attorney may be able to prove that the accusations against you are false. Maybe the owner of the vehicle gave you permission to drive it and then later accused you of stealing the vehicle after a fight or a falling out. Whatever the circumstances, you should not be convicted of a crime that you didn’t commit and your attorney can help you to prove your innocence.

 

When charged with grand theft auto, joyriding, or a related crime in California, a knowledgeable, experienced California theft crimes attorney is your best asset in your defense and may be able to help you get your charges reduced or dismissed. As an attorney with over 30 years of experience, I am confident that I can help you find the best defense possible for your case. Call my office to set up your consultation today.