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What Constitutes Auto Theft in California?

Auto theft can involve several different unlawful acts. 

These include entering a locked vehicle with the following intents:

  • To steal the vehicle. Also known as grand theft auto, it is outlined in California Penal Code 487(d)(1), which makes it unlawful to steal another’s vehicle without their consent and with the intent to deprive them of it. 
  • To steal items inside the vehicle, which can be grand or petty theft. 
  • To engage in joyriding. This falls under Vehicle Code 10851 VC.
  • To commit another felony inside the vehicle.

Penalties for Auto Theft in California

California law categorizes auto theft as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the crime’s circumstances and your past criminal history. 

As a misdemeanor, the penalties for auto theft can include up to one year in county jail and a fine of up to $5,000. If charged as a felony, you can face imprisonment for 16 months, two or three years, and a fine of up to $10,000.

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How Does California Define Auto Theft?

Auto theft can involve several different unlawful acts. 

These include entering a locked vehicle with the following intents:

  • To steal the vehicle. Also known as grand theft auto, it is outlined in California Penal Code 487(d)(1), which makes it unlawful to steal another’s vehicle without their consent and with the intent to deprive them of it. 
  • To steal items inside the vehicle, which can be grand or petty theft. 
  • To engage in joyriding. This falls under Vehicle Code 10851 VC.
  • To commit another felony inside the vehicle.

Auto Theft Penalties

California law categorizes auto theft as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the crime’s circumstances and your past criminal history. 

As a misdemeanor, the penalties for auto theft can include up to one year in county jail and a fine of up to $5,000. If charged as a felony, you can face imprisonment for 16 months, two or three years, and a fine of up to $10,000.

What Is the Difference Between Auto Theft & Carjacking?

In California, auto theft and carjacking involve the unlawful taking of a vehicle, but significant differences exist between these offenses.

Auto theft occurs when you unlawfully take or drive away with someone’s vehicle, typically without the owner’s presence.

Carjacking is a more severe crime. According to California Penal Code § 215, carjacking occurs when the vehicle is stolen in the owner's presence, usually involving the use of force or fear. This means that you used physical violence or threats of injury to the owner or passengers involved. 

The intent behind carjacking does not necessarily have to be permanently depriving the owner of their vehicle; the action could be a temporary deprivation. This offense is always charged as a felony punishable by a three-, five-, or nine-year prison term. 

Carjacking involves a more direct confrontation and potential harm to the vehicle's owner, which is why it carries more severe penalties.

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    Possible Defenses Against Auto Theft

    Depending on your particular auto burglary charge, a California auto theft defense can include the following:

    “It was not your intent to steal” defense: If you were inside a vehicle but did not intend to steal anything from it, you cannot be convicted of auto burglary. Even if you did break into a car or truck, planning to steal valuables or money from the vehicle, a prosecutor would have a difficult time proving this allegation. It should be recognized, though, that it is within the rights of police officers to charge you with auto burglary in this type of situation.

    “The vehicle door was not locked” defense: This type of auto burglary defense is significant, as a vehicle’s doors must be locked if you are found guilty of automobile burglary in California. To be convicted of this charge, you must alter the vehicle’s physical condition by breaking a window or a seal.

    “You did not have the intent to deprive” defense: This defense is used in a situation in which you had no intention of keeping the vehicle in question. Instead, you intended to use the vehicle temporarily and, in turn, had no intent to deprive the owner of their vehicle permanently.

    “You received consent from the vehicle’s owner” defense: You must enter a vehicle without the consent of the owner to be charged with auto burglary. Thus, permission from the rightful owner of the car or truck negates this element altogether.

    Our team can thoroughly investigate your case to determine the best defense strategy. We can help you navigate the complex legal proceedings, build a solid defense strategy, and work towards getting your charges potentially reduced or even dismissed. 

    At Ernenwein & Mathes, LLP, we are committed to providing an aggressive defense backed by extensive professional knowledge and experience. 

    Reach out to our firm at (310) 361-3068 for advice and guidance. 

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