Legal Dictionary

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Car Theft

Car Theft, also known as Auto Theft or Vehicle Theft, is the unlawful taking or driving someone else's car with the intent to deprive the owner of possession or ownership of the car. In California, Car Theft can be charged and prosecuted under two different laws:

  • Unlawful Taking or Driving of Vehicle – Vehicle Code section 10851: It is unlawful for a person to take or drive someone else's car (or other vehicle) without the owner's consent. When the person does so and intendeds to deprive the owner of possession or ownership of the vehicle for any period of time, the crime is complete. This type of Car Theft can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. The punishment for a misdemeanor is a maximum of one year in county jail and up to 3 years in state prison if a felony. The state prison sentence can also be served in Los Angeles County Jail under the recent California Sentencing Guidelines.
  • Grand Theft Auto – Penal Code section 487(d)(1) – Grand Theft Auto is charged when someone takes another person's car without the owner's consent and with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the car; in other words, he or she intended to steal it. Theft of a car is always "Grand Theft Auto" regardless of the value of the car. Grand Theft Auto is a "wobbler" meaning that it can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. A misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of one year in county jail. As a felony, the potential sentence is 16 months to 3 years in state prison. This state prison sentence can also be served in Los Angeles County Jail under the recent California Sentencing Guidelines.

The main difference between the two Car Theft laws lies in the intent of the suspect. If the suspect intended to deprive the owner or possessor of the car permanently (not temporarily) then the charge would be Grand Theft Auto. For example, if the suspect took the car to a chop shop, where the car was disassembled for individual parts, this would be evidence of the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the car and Grand Theft Auto would be charged.

If you are facing Car Theft charges, contact an experienced auto theft defense attorney to learn more about your rights, defenses, and legal options.