California Penal Code Section 487 — California’s law on Grand Theft Auto defines “grand theft auto” as the intentional taking away of a motor vehicle that belongs to someone else.
→ In addition to a charge for “grand theft auto,” car theft can also result in charges for the “Theft and Unlawful Taking or Driving of a Vehicle” , also known as “joyriding” pursuant to California’s Vehicle Code Section 10851.
Enrique stole a car, wanting to sell it for parts, but when his friend told him about the potential consequences of getting caught, Enrique changed his mind and drove the stolen car to a secluded area and left it there.
Even though Enrique did not keep the car or sell it for parts, he can be charged with “grand theft auto” under Penal Code Section 487(d)(1), because he deprived the owner of the substantial value of the car and enjoyment thereof.
To prove that you are guilty of “grand theft auto” by larceny, the prosecutor has to prove the following facts or elements1
- You took a car that belongs to someone else;
- Without the owner’s permission;
- When you took the car, you intended either to:
- deprive the owner of it permanently, or
- take it away from the owner for a long enough time that the owner would be deprived of a substantial portion of the value or enjoyment of it;
- You moved the car, even if only a very short distance, and kept it for a period of time, no matter how brief.
Aside from grand theft by larceny, there are several other ways in which a defendant can steal a car, including:
- Using “false pretenses” to convince the owner to turn over possession and ownership of a car to you;
- Using a “trick” to convince the owner to turn over possession of a car to you;
- Using “embezzlement” to take a car that has been entrusted to you by the owner due to a relationship of trust between you and the owner of the car.
The most common defenses that a skilled criminal defense attorney can use to defend you from a charge of “grand theft auto” are as follows:
Lack of Intent to Steal: Intent is one of the requisite elements that a prosecutor has to show in order to convict of a theft crime. If you did not have intent to steal in the first place, you are not guilty of grand theft.
If you merely meant to borrow the car and bring it right back to its owner, an experienced attorney will try to show that you had no intent to steal the car and that at most you are guilty of “joyriding” under Vehicle Code Section 10851, which is a less serious offense.
Consent From the Owner: If the owner of the property that you allegedly stole gave you permission to take the property, you are not guilty of grand theft.
Peter’s neighbor gave him permission to use his convertible over the weekend to drive to the beach to impress his new girlfriend. They did not agree on a time when Peter has to bring the car back and when Peter did not come home until late on Sunday night, the neighbor called the police and accused Peter of stealing the car. Peter can use the defense of consent to show that he had the owner’s permission to use the car and that his intent was not to steal it, but only to borrow it.
Belief that the Car Belonged to You: If the car actually belonged to you, or if you had a good faith belief (even if it was mistaken) that the car you took belonged to you, you are not guilty of grand theft auto. The good faith belief shows that your intent was not to take the property; rather to claim or re-claim the car that you thought was rightfully yours.
Jane just purchased a car from a seller she met on Craigslist and was driving around in it until she was pulled over because as it turns out, the car was stolen from its rightful owner and Jane purchased a stolen car. Because Jane had a good faith belief that the car she purchased now actually belongs to her, she may be able to use this belief as a defense to grand theft auto.
You Were Falsely Accused: If you were wrongfully accused of taking someone else’s car, but you did not do so, or did not intent to do so, your criminal defense attorney will make sure to thoroughly investigate the evidence in your favor and to try to show that you were framed, set up, or wrongfully blamed for something you did not do.
Under California Penal Code 487(d)(1), “grand theft auto” can be charged either as a misdemeanor or felony offense. In other words, it is a “wobbler.” The level of the penalty depends on the facts of the case and your criminal history.
But more likely than not, it is charged as a felony, and as such, you face a sentence of 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in jail; a fine of up to $10,000; or both.
Taking and Unlawful Driving of Vehicle:
If you did not have intent to permanently deprive the owner of the car of the value and/or enjoyment of the car, you may still be charged with a lesser offense of “taking and unlawful driving of a vehicle” under California Vehicle Code Section 10851. This offense is also known as “joyriding.”
Pursuant to California Vehicle Code Section 10851 Unlawful Taking or driving of a vehicle, if you took or drove a car that was not yours without the owner’s permission, and intended to deprive the owner of possession or ownership of the car for any period of time, no matter how short, you may be guilty of Unlawful Taking or Driving of a Vehicle under Vehicle Code section 10851 also known as “joyriding.”
This is a wobbler offense, meaning that it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. If charged as a misdemeanor, it is punished by 1 year in the county jail and/or a $5,000 fine. If charged as a felony, the punishment is 16 months, two years, or 3 years in state prison.
Petty Theft With a Prior
If you have a prior grand theft auto on your record and are facing more charges, you may be charged with a petty theft with a prior pursuant to California Penal Code Section 666 – Petty Theft With a Prior. This statute is triggered if you have been convicted three or more times of any of the following offenses (listed below), and you served time, you may face increased penalties for a petty theft conviction:
Grand Theft Firearm:
Under Penal Code Sections 484 and 487, a defendant may be charged with “grand theft firearm” if the stolen property was a firearm. If convicted of grand theft firearm, the defendant will face a felony charge.
Pursuant to Penal Code Section 12022.6(a), if there are multiple charges of theft, whether grand or petty theft, and the aggregate loss exceeds any of the statutory minimums in California Penal Code Section 12022.6(a), and the thefts arise from a common scheme or plan, an additional prison term may be imposed.
If the aggregate loss exceeds statutory amounts ranging from $50,000 to $2.5 million, an additional term of one to four years may be imposed.2
Auto Burglary: Pursuant to California Penal Code Section 459, anyone who enters a car when the doors are locked, with intent to commit grand or petty larceny or any felony is guilty of burglary.
Carjacking: Pursuant to California Penal Code Section 215, anyone who uses force or fear to take a car away from the owner’s possession against the owner’s will can be found guilty of carjacking.
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- California Penal Code Section 487(d)(1): “Grand theft is theft committed in any of the following cases: When the property taken is any of the following: (1) An automobile.” [↩]
- Pen. Code, § 12022.6(a)(1)–(4); see People v. Daniel (1983) 145 Cal.App.3d 168, 174–175 [193 Cal.Rptr. 277] [no error in refusing to give unanimity instruction]. [↩]