Car theft cases have declined a lot in California, but despite this, authorities are still putting much effort into ensuring that they solve these cases and prosecute the offenders. If you are arrested for car theft, you are likely to face two types of charges. You will be charged with grand theft auto and the illegal taking or driving of a vehicle. You will be facing grand theft auto charges if you unlawfully take a car and intend to keep it permanently or for a prolonged period. To help you understand the GTA crime, the Orange County Criminal Lawyer will cover the legal definition of grand theft auto, its penalties, legal defenses for the crime, and related offenses.

Legal Definition of Grand Theft Auto

California PC 487 (d) (1) refers to grand theft auto also known as GTA as willful taking away an automobile that belongs to another person with the plan to keep it permanently or for a substantial time to deprive the owner of its use and worth. Aside from this offense, a person who has stolen a car can be charged with joyriding which is also referred to as Theft and Unlawful Taking or Driving of a Vehicle as codified in the Vehicle Code Sec. 10851. For VC 10851, the offender only unlawfully takes the car for a short drive.

Keep in mind that in GTA, almost every vehicle that is self-propelled counts as a vehicle. However, motorized quads, tricycles, and wheelchairs that are commonly used by persons with disabilities do not count as motor vehicles. Unlawfully taking a motorcycle will however count as a GTA.

For example, if Peter stole a car planning to use it to commit another crime and he is arrested, he will be charged with GTA. He will face similar offense as well even if he stole a car to sell parts, but then after, a friend explains the consequences, and he gets cold feet and drove the vehicle in a secluded place and abandons it. However, if Peter planned to take the car and go for a short spin with friends, then he will be charged under VC 10851.

Elements the Prosecution Must Prove in Grand Theft Auto

Particular aspects of GTA must be proved if you are to be convicted of this crime. Some of the factors the prosecutor must prove, include:

  • You took a vehicle belonging to another person,
  • You moved the car and kept it for some time,
  • You had no permission from the owner of the automobile,
  • The value of the car you stole is over $950, and
  • When you took the motor, your purpose or plan was to permanently deny the car owner of it, for a significant period to the extent they would be denied a substantial portion of its value and enjoyment.

Other Ways the Prosecutor Can Prove You are Guilty of GTA

The elements listed above are for proving GTA by larceny. The prosecutor can attest to the court that you are guilty of GTA even if they have not verified any of the above elements. Instead, they can confirm that you committed the crime by showing that you did the following things:

  • You lied or used deceit to persuade the owner of the car to turn over possession,
  • You used a trick to convince someone to turn over ownership of the vehicle to you, or
  • You made use of embezzlement to take a car that was entrusted to you by the owner by abusing a position of trust.

Penalties for Grand Theft Auto Charges

GTA in California is a wobbler crime and can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony offense depending on the circumstances surrounding the offense and the criminal record of the defendant. The Orange County District Attorney is likely to charge an offender with a felony. In the event you are found guilty of GTA felony, the penalties include:

  • A sentence of sixteen months, twenty-four, and thirty-six months,
  • A fine up to $10,000, or
  • Both the conviction and fine.

Keep in mind that after Prop 47 was enacted in 2014, the penalties for grand theft involving property whose value does not exceed $950 were reduced. Due to that, a GTA crime that consists of a vehicle valued at nine hundred and fifty dollars and below will be charged as a misdemeanor and no longer a wobbler offense.

If you steal an expensive car, a conviction will attract enhanced penalties. Below are some of the penalty increments for high-value vehicles:

  • An additional twelve months for an automobile whose value is more than $65,000, or
  • Twenty four additional months for a car whose worth is over $200,000. The vehicle must, however, be in existence or heard of although rare.

Legal Defenses for Grand Theft Auto

Instead of waiting until you face the above penalties, you must hire an Orange County Criminal Lawyer so that they can strategize on the best legal defenses to fight your charges. Some of the legal arguments that can apply to this crime include:

  1. Lack of Intent

Arguing that you had no plan or didn’t intend to steal the car can help fight the charges you are facing. The intent is a requisite aspect the majority of prosecutors rely on to prove someone is guilty of GTA because the intent to steal is defined in California Penal Code 487 (d) (1). However, a lack of purpose cannot apply to a joyriding crime because stealing is not used in defining unlawful taking of a vehicle under Vehicle Code 10851. If your criminal lawyer can show that you had no intention to steal, they can agree to a plea deal with the prosecutor and your charges can be reduced to joyriding.

For example, if Peter plans to take the car of a neighbor and go for a short ride then afterward return it to the owner, but unfortunately, he is caught and arrested for GTA, the attorney can argue that Peter never intended to steal the vehicle. The only thing he is guilty of is violating VC 10851 whose penalties after conviction are not as severe as those of violating Penal Code 487 (d) (1).

Again, Peter has a pregnant wife who has an emergency, and his car cannot start. He decides to use the neighbor’s car without permission to take the wife to the hospital. The neighbor discovers the car is gone and reports it to have been stolen, and Peter is arrested for grand theft auto. Even if Peter goes to court, he cannot be found guilty because he planned to return the vehicle after taking the wife to the hospital. 

  1. Consent of the owner

You cannot be guilty of GTA or joyriding if you had the permission of the vehicle owner to take the car. Your lawyer can argue that you had authority, and the only thing you did wrong was not to return the vehicle at the agreed time. Again, the lawyer can say that you believed the owner had consented to you taking the car. In joyriding, permission from the owner will still hold even if you tricked the owner into permitting you to take the vehicle.

An example of where this defense can apply is when James decides to borrow a car from a friend, but they fail to agree on the return time. James stays with the vehicle for over 24 hours, which the friend didn’t expect. The friend calls the police and accuses James of stealing his car. Even if James is taken to court, he can easily use the consent of the owner as a defense.

  1. The belief of ownership  

One cannot be convicted of GTA if they have a view that the car belongs to you even though later it is proved that the car didn’t belong to you. The type of defense is called a claim of right. The lawyer using this defense often argues that the defendant had a good faith belief that he or she owned the car and therefore, did not intend to steal.

For instance, if you buy a second-hand car today from a seller but unfortunately when you are driving around, law enforcement officers stop you in traffic and arrest for driving a stolen car. It turns out later that the vehicle you thought belonged to you had been unlawfully taken from the rightful owner. Because you had a good faith belief that the car was yours since you made the purchase, claim of right can act as your defense.

  1. False accusation

In the event you are wrongly accused, an experienced criminal lawyer will study all the evidence available to piece together facts and find weaknesses in the prosecution’s evidence to try and show the court that someone is setting you up or wrongly blaming you for the crime.

An example of false accusation is when you unlawfully take a car for a short ride with friends and when you are caught and arrested, they all turn on you and try to frame you or put everything on you, arguing that you are being framed can help you win the case.

Mistaken identity, police misconduct, and anger or revenge are other things that can lead to false accusations. If for instance you have a girlfriend who owns a car and you decide to borrow it for a few days. In case you break up with your girlfriend while you are still in possession of the car, she might falsely accuse you of stealing the vehicle due to anger or revenge reasons.

Other common defenses that can be used to fight GTA charges include:

  • Statute of limitations

The Statute of Limitations limits the time the prosecution has to bring charges against a defendant. For a felony GTA, the prosecutor has until three years to bring criminal charges against you and up to one year for misdemeanor GTA. If this period has been exceeded, your criminal lawyer can use this to fight the charges.

  • Insanity

The defense applies where the defendant didn’t know the difference between right and wrong due to mental illness thus taking someone’s car without permission.

Grand Theft Auto and Other Related Offenses

There are various other car theft crimes you can be charged with, alongside, beside or instead of grand theft auto. These crimes include:

  1. Carjacking 

California Penal Code 215 PC defines carjacking as the use of physical force, fear, or intimidation to take a car from another person. It never counts if the person you are taking control of the vehicle from the owner or passenger. To prove you violated PC 215 all that is required is to convince you used force or fear to take control of the car. Because carjacking is a violent offense, it is filed under the Three Strikes Law. It means that if you are convicted of this crime, you will serve eighty-five percent of your sentence without parole.

If you are arrested for using force or intimidation to take a car, you will be charged with car theft and California carjacking. The penalties for carjacking are a sentence of up to nine years in prison. An excellent criminal lawyer can, however, get these charges reduced to vehicle theft by arguing that you didn't use force or fear.

  1. Receiving stolen property

According to California Penal Code 496, it is unlawful to purchase, receive, sell, withhold, or conceal any property that has been unlawfully taken. Vehicles are among the features mentioned in the definition of receiving stolen goods. In California, you will not be charged with receiving stolen property and grand theft auto. You can also not be convicted of committing these two crimes.

However, it is possible to be charged with receiving stolen property and unlawful taking of a car or joyriding. It happens if the defendant bought or received a vehicle that they were aware of was stolen, and they drove the car for some time without the consent of the owner. To be convicted of these two crimes is not easy because the two must have happened in different acts.

For instance, if you are given a stolen car by a friend today and then you are caught driving the same vehicle the following day, you will have committed two crimes because the one for receiving a stolen car is separate from that of joyriding. As a result, you can be convicted for these two crimes.

Receiving stolen property can be filed as a misdemeanor or a felony offense. When someone is guilty of receiving property like a car whose value is $950 or less, the offense is filed as a misdemeanor, and the penalties are:

  • A maximum sentence of 12 months in county jail, and
  • An amount not over one thousand dollars in fine.

If the value of the property exceeds nine hundred and fifty dollars, you will be charged with a felony. The penalties for the charge include:

  • A sentence of up to three years in prison, or
  • A fine not more than $10,000.

To fight the charges of receiving stolen property, one can argue that they were not aware of the car or other property was unlawfully taken, they had innocence intent or voluntary intoxication.

  1. Petty Theft

California PC 484 defines petty theft as the unlawful taking of a car whose worth is $950 or below. In case you are charged with car theft and the value is below $950, then you won’t be charged with auto grand theft. Instead, you will be facing petty theft charges. Child molestation, murder, rape, and sexually violent convicts are, however, exempted.

Before Prop 47 was passed, all crimes involving car theft were deemed grand theft auto even if the value of the vehicle stolen was $950 or less. Prop 47 has made it possible for people convicted with felony GTA to appeal the sentences if the worth of the car they were convicted of stealing is nine hundred and fifty dollars or less.

If convicted of petty theft, the penalties for a misdemeanor are a maximum sentence of half a year or a maximum fine of one thousand dollars.

  1. Burglary

PC 459 refers to burglary as gaining access to a dwelling or building with the intent to commit a felony or petty theft. You will be charged with burglary and GTA if you enter someone’s garage with the intent to steal a vehicle. One the other hand, you can be charged with both grand auto theft and auto burglary for breaking into another person’s car. If you didn’t manage to steal the vehicle, you would only be charged with auto burglary.

The penalties for burglary are a maximum sentence of three years or up to six years if the dwelling or trailer is inhibited or occupied.

  1. Joyriding or taking and unlawfully driving of a vehicle

If a person didn’t have the intention of depriving the rightful owner of the car its worth and enjoyment, then they have violated Vehicle Code 10851. In a joyriding crime, the prosecution is required to prove that the defendant took and drove another person’s car without their permission and at the time they took the car, their purpose was to deny or deprive the owner of it for any period.

Joyriding and GTA has one significant difference. The difference is that in grand theft auto, the defendant must have intended or planned to deprive the owner of the car its value and a significant portion of it by stealing it permanently for a substantial period. In joyriding, however, the intent of the offender was to deny the owner its worth and enjoyment for a short duration like an hour or so.

Penalties of Joyriding

Unlawful taking of a vehicle is charged as a wobbler. For first time offenders, it is charged as a misdemeanor, and the penalties are as follows:

  • A maximum sentence of twelve months in county jail, or
  • A fine of up to $5000.

In case you are a second or subsequent offender, the prosecution can file the charges as a felony. If convicted, the penalties for these charges are:

  • A fine of not more than ten thousand dollars, or
  • A sentence of 16 months, 2, or 3 years in jail.

You are likely to face enhanced penalties if the vehicle you unlawfully took for a short spin is any of the following:

  • An ambulance on an emergency call,
  • A police car or a fire fighting vehicle on an emergency call, and
  • A disabled placard car.

If you were aware or reasonably should have known the vehicle you were taking is any of the ones listed above when convicted, the penalties will include:

  • A sentence of two years, three years, or four years in jail, and
  • A fine of $10,000.

For instance, if John and his classmates are coming from school and come across a car parked on the street. After peeping, they realize the vehicle is not locked, and the keys are in the ignition. They decide to take the car for a drive. 

John and the friends are caught and arrested for the unlawful taking of a vehicle. Later, it turns out the car belonged to a disabled person, but it didn’t have a disabled parking placard. It means John and the friends had no knowledge or could not have reasonably known the car belonged to a disabled person. Due to that, if they are convicted, they are not going to face the enhanced penalties for joyriding.

Find a Theft Lawyer near Me

There is no other way around stealing someone’s car. You must face the consequences of your actions once you are arrested and charged with grand auto theft. Whatever the reasons you decided to take or drive someone’s car without their consent, you need an Orange County Criminal Attorney to help you in court. We have represented many cases of GTA in court, and we are going to help you by evaluating your case to find all the elements that the prosecution can use against you and fight these elements by arguing that your actions did not amount to the charge. If you want to understand the crime of grand theft auto, contact us at 714-262-4833 for a zero-obligation consultation.