California defines the theft of an automobile as grand theft in California Penal Code 487. The state can prosecute the theft of an automobile for three years after the commission of the offense. The length of time that the state can bring charges is called the statute of limitations. The state can also prosecute other types of California grand theft, such as theft of a firearm, for three years after the offense has been committed.
Definition of Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations is the deadline for filing a lawsuit. In a criminal case, the state of California has the amount of time specified in the statute of limitations for a specific crime to file the lawsuit. If the state does not file charges within this period, the court will dismiss the case. This is true even if the facts show that the defendant committed the crime.
Tolling the Statute of Limitations
A statute of limitations may be suspended, or tolled, for a period of time and later begin to run again. The statute of limitations can be tolled when the defendant is a minor, out of the state or in prison, or defined by the state as being insane. When the reason for the tolling ends, such as if the defendant returns to California, the statute of limitations begins to run again. Tolling is one reason that the state may have longer than three years to prosecute a defendant for grand theft of a vehicle.
Grand Theft of a Vehicle
The California Penal Code does not have a specific section that contains the phrase “grand theft auto (GTA).” What the statute on grand theft does is clearly state theft of an automotive vehicle is defined as grand theft. The value of the vehicle does not matter.
For most other types of grand theft, the value of the money, labor or real or personal property stolen does matter. In order to qualify as a grand theft, the value of the item stolen must exceed $950. If the value of the item stolen is $950 or under, the offense is called petty theft.
Grand Theft Is a Wobbler
In California, grand theft is a wobbler offense. This means that the state can file the offense as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on factors like the defendant’s criminal record or prior convictions and whether the defendant has committed the same offense before.
If the state files the offense of vehicle theft as a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty is one year of jail time and a fine of $5,000, in accordance with California Vehicle Code Section 10851 and Section 489. If the state files the offense as a felony charge, the maximum penalty is up to three years in state prison.
The elements of the grand theft of a vehicle are that the vehicle must not belong to the person who drives or takes the vehicle, the person taking the vehicle must lack the owner's consent and must have the intent to permanently or temporarily deprive the owner of their title to or possession of the vehicle, with or without intent to steal the vehicle. A person who is a party, accessory or accomplice in the driving and unauthorized taking or stealing of a vehicle is subject to penalty.
Penalties for Unlawful Taking of a Vehicle
Carjacking is a separate crime from grand theft. California Penal Code Section 215 defines carjacking as the felonious taking of a motor vehicle in the possession of another. The vehicle must be taken from a person or from their immediate presence, including the passenger of the vehicle.
The offender must take the vehicle against the other person’s will with the intent to either permanently or temporarily deprive the person of possession of the vehicle. The offender must accomplish the deprivation by force or fear. Carjacking is a felony punishable by a prison sentence of three, five or nine years.
The sentence can be enhanced by 10 years if the offender used a firearm in the commission of the offense; 20 years if the offender intentionally fired the weapon; and 25 years to life if the offender’s firing of the weapon proximately caused great bodily injury or death.
Buying or Receiving Stolen Property
Buying or receiving a stolen vehicle is a different offense than grand theft of a vehicle. California Penal Code Section 496 provides that the penalty includes up to one year in county jail. An attempt to commit such an act is also punishable by up to one year in jail.
A person who has been injured by such an act may bring an action for three times the amount of actual damages, if any, sustained by the plaintiff, as well as for the cost of the lawsuit and reasonable attorney’s fees. The victim files this lawsuit in civil court, separately from the state’s criminal case against the offender.
Related Offenses and Civil Suits
Often an offender who steals a vehicle damages it after the theft. If the court does not order the defendant to pay the victim restitution, or money to repair the vehicle, as part of the defendant’s sentence in the criminal case, the victim can file a civil lawsuit against the defendant for the damages. It is typical for a victim to file a civil lawsuit on top of the state prosecuting the crime simply to ensure that the defendant’s sentence does not term out without the defendant paying the victim.
A victim has three years from the date the property was damaged to file a civil lawsuit for damage to property. Although this statute is three years, it is not the same as the previously stated statute of limitations for the state to prosecute the defendant. The date of the theft and the date that damages were incurred may differ.
The victim is allowed to sue the defendant for the damages and get a judgment against them even if the defendant is in state prison for the grand theft. The order will remain in effect against the defendant, and require that the defendant pay the victim monies owed after the defendant leaves prison and is no longer on parole.
- California Vehicle Code: Sections 10850 to 10856, Theft and Injury of Vehicles
- California Penal Code: Sections 211 to 215, Robbery
- California Penal Code: Section 801, Time of Commencing Criminal Actions
- California Penal Code: Section 12022.53, Sentence Enhancements
- California Legislature: AB-2158 Sentencing, Enhancements
- California Penal Code: Section 488, Definition of Petty Theft
- California Penal Code: Section 489, Penalty for Grand Theft
- California Penal Code: Section 496, Buying or Receiving Stolen Property
- California Courts: Statute of Limitations
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.