If you steal a car in California, you could face a grand theft auto charge (GTA) under Penal Code 487(d)(1) (PC), but you will more likely be charged with unlawful driving or taking of a vehicle, commonly known as “joyriding.” These charges are easier for the prosecution to prove and carry the same penalties, so they are filed more frequently than traditional grand theft auto. If you have been accused of illegally taking someone else’s vehicle, please call an attorney as soon as possible.
What is Grand Theft Auto in California?
Grand theft is the illegal taking of any property valued at more than $950, as opposed to petty theft, which involves the taking of property worth less than $950. Because most cars are worth more than $950, stealing a car is usually a form of grand theft defined as grand theft auto under Penal Code 487(d)(1). If a stolen car is worth less than that, it is considered petty theft and only a misdemeanor offense. To prove GTA charges, prosecutors must be able to show that the defendant took the vehicle intending to permanently deprive the owner of their car.
While a grand theft auto charge can be either a misdemeanor or a felony, prosecutors almost always charge car theft as a felony. A misdemeanor grand theft auto conviction is only punishable by a sentence of up to 1 year in county jail, whereas felonies are punishable by up to 3 years in state prison. Anyone convicted of this offense will also be required to pay restitution to the victim, and may also be ordered to pay restitution to the police for the cost of recovering the vehicle.
When very valuable vehicles are stolen, this can add additional time to a sentence. You may face an extra year in prison for a car valued at over $65,000 or two years for a vehicle valued at more than $200,000.
If you have been accused of grand theft auto, your defense attorney may be able to have the charges reduced. In some cases, this may be done by proving the vehicle was worth less than $950. In other cases, it may mean trying to show the car was worth less than $65,000 or $200,000 to minimize the time you may face in prison.
Unlawful Driving or Taking of a Vehicle
While GTA is the better-known crime, the DA usually charges auto theft using Vehicle Code section 10851 (VC) instead. This offense, known as the unlawful driving or taking of a vehicle, carries the same felony punishment but does not require prosecutors to prove the defendant actually stole the car or intended to keep it. This statute covers everything from joyriding to vehicle theft and is typically charged as a felony. Since it is much easier to prove than GTA, it has become the charge of choice for prosecutors in car theft cases.
Carjacking, Robbery, and Auto Burglary
Those accused of stealing a vehicle may face other charges as well. If the crime was violent, you’ll likely face carjacking or auto robbery charges. These offenses both involve taking a vehicle directly from someone through the use of force or fear. These charges are always felonies and can carry a sentence of up to nine years in prison or twenty years if a weapon was used. You cannot be convicted of both carjacking or auto robbery, though you can be charged with both at the same time.
If you didn’t steal the car itself, you could face car burglary charges. Auto burglary occurs when someone breaks into a locked vehicle intending to commit a felony, whether that means stealing the vehicle, stealing something inside the car, or any other felony crime. This offense can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony, and those convicted of felony auto burglary may face up to three years in prison.
Anyone accused of grand theft auto or any other type of vehicle theft in San Diego should contact a top defense attorney as soon as possible. Peter M. Liss may be able to have some or all of the charges dropped or reduced, but anything you say to the police could end up making things harder for you. If you have been accused of any crime related to the illegal taking of a vehicle, please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.