A person who steals a vehicle can face charges based on one of two crimes in California. The crime charged, either the unlawful taking of a vehicle or grand theft auto, depends on the circumstances of the offense. A statute of limitations is in place for both crimes, so the prosecutor must file charges before the statute of limitations expires, or the accused cannot go to trial.
The lesser offense for stealing a vehicle is commonly referred to as “joyriding.” The California Vehicle Code calls the crime the “unlawful taking or driving a vehicle,” and refers to taking a vehicle without the owner’s permission with the intent to keep the vehicle either temporarily or permanently. Joyriding is a misdemeanor offense; however, if the vehicle stolen is a law enforcement vehicle, fire department vehicle, ambulance or clearly displays a handicapped placard or license plate, the offense is then a felony.
Grand Theft Auto
Grand theft auto is a charge under the California Penal Code. The main difference between grand theft auto and joyriding is that the accused intended to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle. Basically, an intent to steal must exist, as opposed to just taking the car for a ride. Because of this increased intent, grand theft auto is a felony.
Read More: California Auto Theft Laws: Wobbler Crimes and Joyriding
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations is the amount of time a prosecutor has to file charges against someone accused of a crime. The statute begins running on the date of the offense and when it expires, the accused can never be tried, convicted and penalized. The statute of limitations for the unlawful taking of a vehicle, a misdemeanor, is one year. Because grand theft auto is felony, the penal code allows a longer period of time to prosecute. In California, the statute of limitations for felonies that carry a prison sentence of less than eight years is three years. The law also provides an extension if the accused fled the jurisdiction. When the accused is absent from California, the prosecution has three additional years to file charges for grand theft auto.
A person convicted of the unlawful taking of a vehicle under the California Vehicle Code can face a sentence of up to one year in county jail and/or a maximum fine of $5,000. If the offense involves a specialized vehicle, the maximum fine is $10,000. Incarceration increases to between two and four years at the court’s discretion based on the nature of the offense and the offender’s prior criminal history. Because the sentence is more than one year, the offender must serve the time in prison instead of county jail.
Felony grand theft auto carries a sentence of between 16 months and four years in prison, as well as a $10,000 fine. The court will sentence the offender to an additional time based on the value of the vehicle stolen. If the vehicle has a value of more than $65,000, the court will add an additional year that will run consecutively, meaning after the initial sentence runs, the offender must serve one year in full. The same applies when a vehicle is worth more than $200,000, except the additional sentence is two years.
Bernadette A. Safrath is an attorney who has been writing professionally since 2008. Safrath was published in Touro Law Center's law review and now writes legal articles for various websites. Safrath has a Bachelor of Arts in music from Long Island University at C.W. Post, as well as a Juris Doctor from Touro College.