Under California’s general theft laws, it is illegal to steal someone else’s car. The unique circumstances of the theft will determine whether you will face charges for petty theft, joyriding, or grand theft auto (GTA). The main difference between these crimes is the vehicle’s value and the defendant's criminal intent. Under Penal Code section 487(d)(1), the laws define grand theft auto as the crime of taking someone else’s car that is worth $950 or more with the intent to deprive the owner of enjoyment of the vehicle permanently. If you face grand theft auto charges, you owe yourself the favor of seeking top-quality legal counsel. At the Long Beach Criminal Attorney, we can help you fight the charges to increase the odds of a favorable outcome.
California has complicated auto theft laws. There are thin lines between related crimes like GTA, joyriding, petty theft, and auto burglary. A skilled criminal defense attorney can be an invaluable asset to your case. The specialist can devise the best strategies to increase the chances of having your charges reduced or dismissed.
Grand Theft Auto, Penal Code 487(d)(1) Defined
Penal Code 487(d)(1) describes grand theft auto as the crime of taking another person’s car without their consent and with the intention to deprive the owner of their vehicle permanently or for a significant period. The crime is a wobbler offense, although the prosecution often finds clever ways to impose felony charges.
For the prosecution to convict you of grand theft auto, they must prove the following elements beyond a shred of doubt:
- You took someone else’s car
- The stolen vehicle’s worth exceeds $950
- You didn’t have the vehicle owner’s permission or consent to take their car
- You moved the vehicle (irrespective of distance) and kept it (irrespective of the period)
- You intended to deprive the car owner of their asset permanently
- You intended to keep the car for a significant period and deprive its owner of enjoyment or a significant portion of the vehicle’s value
Often, defendants commit GTA through larceny (stealing as described above). However, the prosecution can also charge you with the crime by possessing a vehicle through the following means:
- Embezzlement — Theft of vehicle whose owner has entrusted it to you
- Trickery — Using unscrupulous means to make someone give you their car willfully
- Deceit — Using false pretense or lies to make someone give you their car
Grand Theft Auto Penalties
Even though the prosecution often charges grand theft auto as a felony, it is a wobbler offense that attracts misdemeanor charges on rare occasions. A skilled criminal defense attorney can help you fight the charges and possibly dodge the harsh repercussions of a felony conviction.
When violating Penal Code 487(d)(1) is charged as a felony, a conviction could attract the following punishment:
- 16 months, 2 or 3 years jail time
- A fine not exceeding $10,000
If you face misdemeanor charges for grand theft auto, the penalty imposed may include:
- Incarceration in county jail for one year
- A maximum fine of $5,000
Note that GTA convictions may be subject to sentence enhancement based on the value of the stolen vehicle. Here’s what to expect:
- Cars worth $65,000 or more— jail time for 1 extra year
- Vehicles worth $200,000 or more— incarceration for 2 additional years
Grand Theft Auto vs. Joyriding; What’s The Difference?
Stealing a car in California may end you in serious legal trouble. Based on the circumstances of a case, the prosecution may impose the following charges:
- Penal Code 487(d)(1) — Grand theft auto
- Penal Code 10851 VC — Joyriding
So, what’s the difference between these two offenses?
Here is what you need to know:
Vehicle Code Section 10851 describes joyriding as the offense of taking or driving another person’s car without their consent
The elements of violating Vehicle Code 10851 are as follows:
- The accused took or drove another person’s vehicle
- The defendant did not have the permission of the vehicle’s owner
- The accused intended to temporarily deny the car owner of possession of the car temporarily
Penalty for Joyriding
Like GTA, joyriding is also a wobbler offense that can attract felony or misdemeanor charges. However, it is perceived to be a lesser crime.
A joyriding felony conviction may attract the following penalty:
- Imprisonment for 16 months, 2 or 3 years
- $10,000 fine maximum
There are aggravating factors that may lead to a harsher penalty for joyriding. These factors include:
- The stolen vehicle was modified to suit the needs of a disabled person
- The stolen vehicle was an ambulance on an emergency call
- The stolen car was a marked fire or police car on an emergency call
- A defendant has prior vehicle theft convictions
Under the above circumstances, a conviction may lead to the following punishment:
- 2 to 4 year’s jail time
- A maximum fine of $10,000
In GTA and joyriding, the prosecution can prove an “intent to deny” by demonstrating that you possessed the car under suspicious circumstances. However, the laws describe joyriding as more of “borrowing” a car than stealing it. Note that you may still face joyriding charges even if you only possess the “borrowed” vehicle for a few minutes.
In GTA cases, the defendant intends to keep the stolen vehicle for a substantial period or permanently. For instance, you are likely to face charges for joyriding if you take a “borrowed” car for a short spin and return it. However, taking the vehicle for a more extended period may be enough grounds for the prosecution to impose grand theft auto charges.
Certain offenses are closely related to grand theft auto. Depending on the facts of a case, the prosecution could charge you with these offenses instead of or alongside GTA.
Auto Burglary — Penal Code 459
Under Penal Code 459, it is illegal to enter someone else’s property with the intent to commit petty theft or a felony. Note that the laws will define each property distinctively. For instance, if you break into someone else’s garage and steal their car, you will face charges for burglary (for breaking into the garage) alongside GTA (for stealing the vehicle).
Burglary is a felony. If convicted, the punishment may include:
- 16months to 6 years’ incarceration in state prison
Carjacking — Penal Code 215
Penal Code 215 defines carjacking as the felonious act of taking another person’s car from their possession or immediate presence using force or threats of safety. Note that carjacking is a violent felony that falls under California’s Three Strikes law. Anytime a defendant uses force or threats, the prosecution is likely to impose carjacking charges alongside grand theft auto charges.
A conviction for carjacking may attract the following punishment:
- 3, 5, or 9 years imprisonment
Possession of Stolen Property — Penal Code 496
Under Penal Code 496, it is unlawful to receive, buy, sell, conceal or withhold stolen property. Unlike Penal Code 215 that can be charged alongside grand theft auto, the prosecution cannot charge you with both GTA and possession of stolen property. However, you can face charges for both joyriding and receiving stolen property.
Again, the court will consider the value of the stolen property before deciding whether to impose misdemeanor or felony charges.
Receiving a stolen car whose value doesn’t exceed $950 is a misdemeanor. The penalty for the offense includes:
- Up to 1 year jail time
- A $1,000 maximum fine
If the stolen car's value exceeds $950, the prosecution will impose felony charges. Here’s the punishment you may face following a conviction:
- Jail time for 16 months, 2 or 3 years
- A fine of $10,000 maximum
Best Legal Defenses to Fight Grand Theft Auto Charges
The repercussions of a GTA conviction can affect just about every area of your life. Apart from losing your freedom, a felony on your record can impact your career and livelihood negatively. It is best to work with experienced criminal litigation attorneys who can give you a genuine winning chance when fighting the charges.
Here are some of the best defenses a reliable attorney may use:
Lack of Intent
As with all kinds of grand theft charges, the prosecution can only convict you of grand theft auto if they prove your intent. Note that possessing a car under suspicious circumstances is enough to imply the goal to deny a vehicle’s owner of their asset.
With grand theft, a skilled lawyer can have the charges reduced to joyriding by arguing that your intent was not to steal. It could be that you possessed the vehicle, although you intended to return it after use.
A joyriding conviction is a win because it is perceived to be a lesser crime. Unlike GTA, which often attracts a felony conviction, the prosecution often imposes misdemeanor charges for joyriding. Moreover, a joyriding conviction on your record may not have the same devastating repercussions as a GTA conviction.
Vehicle Owner’s Consent
Another element the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt is that you had permission to take or drive the car. You cannot steal a vehicle if its owner allows you to possess it.
Note that this defense will only bear the intended fruit if you didn’t obtain consent through trickery or fraud. Furthermore, you must have obtained permission recently and only used the car within the scope of the consent given. For instance, if a car’s owner authorizes you to park their vehicle, you can still face GTA charges if you decide to take a spin around town.
Claim of Right
Penal Code section 487(d)(1) describes grand theft as the crime of unlawfully taking “someone else’s” vehicle. That said, you may not have a case to answer if the car fully or partially belongs to you. The prosecution can also not impose charges if you had reason to believe you were the vehicle owner. This is irrespective of whether you had a misplaced belief.
For instance, John and Peter co-own a business. After years of working together, the two decided to close the business and split the assets. The company car, once co-owned by the two, suddenly becomes Peter’s sole property. John knew that some of the assets would go to Peter but was unaware that the experts had already changed the car’s title to only Peter’s name.
In this case, John still believed that he partially owned the car. Even though he went on a two-week vacation with the vehicle and without Peter’s consent, he had reason to believe he still had legal ownership of the car.
Unfortunately, it is not foreign for plaintiffs to falsely press charges for GTA. This often happens when out of anger, spite, jealousy, or as an act of revenge. A competent lawyer can piece up the facts of a case and help to unveil the truth.
For example, Jane and June are good friends. Jane asks June to drop by her place and ride with her to a party. Jane intends to have the night of her life. Because she’s already high, she gives June her car keys, and they drive to the party. Everything is excellent until Jane’s crush shows an interest in June. June is uncomfortable with the situation and tells Jane they should leave the party. Jane opts to remain behind but gives June her consent to drive back home.
In the above scenario, a competent attorney can prove to the court that Jane denies giving consent because she was jealous. The expert may even find witnesses to back up the claims. Anyone in the party who saw Jane turn green after her crush showed an interest in June could help paint the picture of what truly happened.
Find a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
Taking, “borrowing,” or outright stealing a car could leave you facing grand theft auto charges. Your best chance of avoiding a felony conviction on your record is to seek the help of a skilled criminal defense attorney. While not even the best expert can guarantee the outcome of your case, a skilled one can help you build a strong defense. This could have your charges reduced or dropped, or at least ensure you don’t serve a lengthy jail sentence. At the Long Beach Criminal Attorney, we have a legal team dedicated to fighting GTA charges. Our collective experience allows us to defend the rights and futures of our clients effectively. Call us at 562-308-7807, and let us discuss your case in more detail.