The answer to that question is both yes and no. It depends on the circumstances. A key factor in any auto or vehicle theft offense is what the borrower or renter specifically intends to do with the car at the time of taking it. Generally, a person is guilty of auto theft when he or she takes a car, without the owner's consent and with the specific intent to take it from its rightful owner either temporarily or permanently. For example, if John borrows a friend's car and doesn't return the car to his friend then John can be charged with auto theft. However, if John returns the car at the agreed upon time, then John cannot be prosecuted for theft. Now if John rents a car from a car rental agency and doesn't return the car on the agreed upon time, John can be charged with theft after the rental agency reports the car stolen to the police.
In California, auto theft can be prosecuted under two different laws:
- Grand Theft Auto (commonly referred to as GTA) – Under California Penal Code section 487(d)(1), Grand Theft Auto occurs when a car ( valued at $950 or more) is taken without the owner's permission and with the specific intent to deprive the owner of possession of the car permanently or deprive the owner of the car of significant value or enjoyment. Grand Theft Auto can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony in Los Angeles. It is prosecuted as a misdemeanor when the value of the car is less than $950. In California and especially in Los Angeles, Grand Theft Auto is usually prosecuted as a felony.
- Unlawful Taking of a Vehicle (Joyriding) – This form of auto or vehicle theft is prosecuted under Vehicle Code section 10851. It is taking or driving a car without the owner's consent with the intent to deprive the owner of possession of his or her car for any period of time. One big difference between Joyriding and Grand Theft Auto is the length of time the car was stolen. In Grand Theft Auto cases the driver must have intended to steal the car permanently or for a long enough period to deprive the owner of significant value or enjoyment of the car. In Joyriding cases, the specific intent to deprive the owner of the car can be for any period of time – even 15 minutes or an hour or less. Joyriding can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on factors such as the driver’s intent and the length of time the car was stolen. Cars not returned to a rental agency on the agreed upon time are often charged as felonies in Los Angeles.
Penalties For Auto / Vehicle Theft
Grand Theft Auto can be charged as a misdemeanor and is punishable by up to a year in county jail. Felony Grand Theft Auto is punishable by up to three years in state prison. The penalties for Joyriding are the same as in Grand Theft Auto. Prosecutors also have the discretion in filing the theft as a misdemeanor or felony. That decision depends on the circumstances surrounding the alleged theft and the suspect's prior criminal record. There are enhanced penalties for stealing expensive cars. If the car stolen had a value of more than $65,000 an additional year could be added to the sentence. It is two (2) years added to the sentence if the stolen car was valued at over $200,000. Penalties for Joyriding in a police car, ambulance or a vehicle with a disabled placard are charged as felonies in Los Angeles and are punishable by two (2) to four (4) years in state prison.
Our Criminal Defense Attorneys Can Help You
If you've borrowed a friend's car or rented a car from a rental agency and had issues returning the car, you may be arrested and charged with auto theft. Auto theft requires an “intent to temporarily or permanently deprive the owner” element. Without direct evidence (such as a confession or witness statements) to establish an intent to deprive the owner of their car, a prosecutor may have a difficult time obtaining a conviction for theft. If you or someone you know is being investigated or charged with auto theft, consult with one of our experienced Los Angeles criminal attorneys and learn what legal options are available to you. We bring over 50 years of combined criminal law experience, don't hesitate to call us at (213) 481-6811 today.