California Auto Theft Laws: Wobbler Crimes and Joyriding

California Auto Theft Laws: Wobbler Crimes and Joyriding
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California auto theft laws cover a number of different crimes including grand theft auto, petty theft, unlawful taking or tampering with a vehicle and carjacking. The most frequently charged California car theft law is the unlawful taking or tampering with a vehicle. This crime does not require the prosecution to prove that the defendant intended to permanently take the car from the owner, whereas grand theft does. Under California law, a vehicle includes any motorized vehicle, whether a car, a truck, a tractor, a scooter or a bus.

California Grand Theft Auto Laws

Easily the best known car theft law is that of grand theft auto, but most people don't know exactly what grand theft auto actually entails, other than that it involves taking someone else's vehicle without permission. In fact, grand theft auto is a specific form of California's more generalized grand theft laws, so in order for someone to have technically committed grand theft auto, the vehicle must be valued at more than $950. Additionally, in order for someone to be guilty of vehicle theft, the prosecution must prove that the person intended to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle, as opposed to just taking it for a short period intending to return it.

Grand theft auto is what's known as a wobbler crime in California, meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, but it is usually prosecuted as a felony. As a misdemeanor, it carries a sentence of up to one year in jail and a fine of $1,000. As a felony, the penalty will be 16 months, two years or three years in jail and a fine of $10,000.

The jail time for auto theft increases if the vehicle stolen was particularly valuable, resulting in one additional year in jail if the car was valued at more than $65,000 and two years additional if it was worth more than $200,000. While most cars, even luxury cars, are worth less than $200,000, this is intended to discourage the theft of high-value exotic vehicles, such as Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

Read More: California Shoplifting Laws: Grand Theft, Petty Theft, Punishment

Petty Theft Involving Vehicles

The majority of vehicles on the road are worth more than $950, but if a stolen car is valued at less, the charge is petty theft, rather than grand theft auto. Petty theft is always a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

It's worth knowing that prior to 2014 any form of auto theft had been considered grand theft. Thanks to the enactment of Proposition 47, which reclassified many wobbler crimes as misdemeanors, the theft of vehicles valued at $950 or less became petty theft, a misdemeanor. But Proposition 47 does not apply to offenders with certain prior convictions on their records, including murder, crimes that involved the use of guns and any crime that requires registration on the state's sex offender list.

Joyriding: VC Section 10851 Vehicle Theft

Commonly referred to as joyriding, the unlawful taking or tampering with a vehicle, unauthorized use of a vehicle or simply vehicle theft, California Vehicle Code Section 10851 is similar to grand theft auto with two critical differences. First, while Proposition 47 applied to certain instances of grand auto theft, the courts have ruled that it does not apply to VC Section 10851, regardless of the value of the vehicle.

Secondly, while grand theft charges require the prosecution to prove that the defendant intended to deprive the owner of possession of their vehicle permanently, VC Section 10851 can be charged no matter how short or long of a period the vehicle was taken.

In other words, if someone took his neighbor's car without permission and drove to the corner store to buy cigarettes before coming home to return the vehicle, he could still be charged with VC Section 10851. This is what is commonly known as joyriding. But even if someone took a vehicle hoping to sell it to someone else, permanently depriving the owner of the vehicle, the prosecution often will press charges under VC Section 10851 because it is not necessary to prove there was an intent to sell the car, which can often be challenging.

Prior Permission is Not a Defense

Note that if someone got permission to use a vehicle at one point, this does not permit her to take the vehicle on a future occasion without explicit permission, meaning prior permission is not a defense to taking the car again without permission. Also, it is possible to be charged with attempted joyriding, so if someone breaks into a car and tries, but fails, to start it, he could be charged with attempted violation of Section VC 10851.

Attempted charges in California law are punishable by half of the sentence that would be given if the crime was successfully committed. Finally, it's important to recognize that even those who are passengers in joyriding cases can still be charged with the crime as long as they knew the vehicle was taken without permission.

Penalties for Vehicle Code Section 10851 Violation

Like grand theft auto, VC Section 10851 can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Unlike grand theft auto though, these charges are usually filed as a misdemeanor in cases involving first-time offenders. As a misdemeanor, penalties can include up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.

If the crime is charged as a felony, it carries the same penalty as grand theft auto – a jail term of 16 months, two years or three years and a fine of up to $10,000. Both felony and misdemeanor charges may also result in probation as well as a six-month driver's license suspension.

Other Factors to Consider

The sentence will increase if the stolen vehicle was:

  • An ambulance out on an emergency call.
  • A firefighting vehicle on an emergency call.
  • A law enforcement vehicle on an emergency call, as long as it was clearly marked as such.
  • A vehicle specially modified for the use of disabled persons that displayed a disabled license plate or placard.

In these specific cases, the charges will always be a felony, carrying a sentence of two, three or four years in jail and a fine of $10,000. These penalties only apply if you knew or should have known the car was one of these specially protected vehicles. So, for example, if someone takes a van equipped with a wheelchair ramp, but the person who took it did not see the modifications or the placard that was stored in the glove box, then these enhanced penalties would not apply.

When someone has already been convicted of felony grand theft or joyriding, the crime will always be charged as a felony, and the sentence will be increased to two, three or four years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

Auto Burglary Charges

California Vehicle Code Section 10851 requires a vehicle to be driven some distance, so if someone simply breaks into a locked car to sleep in it, he has not violated this law or any auto theft laws, but instead could be charged with auto burglary, vandalism or trespassing. Auto burglary is not simply the act of breaking into a locked vehicle, but the act of breaking into a vehicle with the intent to commit theft, whether of the car itself or some property inside the car, or to commit a felony inside the car.

It is possible to be charged with auto burglary in conjunction with other crimes, including grand theft. In fact, if you broke into a locked garage and stole a locked car, you could be charged for burglary related to breaking into the garage, auto burglary and grand theft auto or theft of a vehicle under VC Section 10851.

Because burglary relies on the intent to commit theft, the theft does not necessarily need to be successful as long as the car was locked and the person illegally entered it with the intent to steal it or commit another felony. In fact, if someone broke into a car and attempted but failed to hotwire it, she could be charged both with auto burglary and attempted theft under VC Section 10851.

Second-Degree Burglary

Auto burglary almost always falls under the definition of second-degree burglary, which is a wobbler just like grand theft auto and a violation of VC Section 10851. As a misdemeanor, auto burglary carries a maximum fine of up to one year in jail; as a felony, it is punishable by 16 months, two years or three years in jail. The exception occurs when the vehicle is also someone's residence, such as an RV. In these cases, the crime becomes first-degree burglary, a felony punishable by two, four or six years in prison.

Carjacking Laws in California

While most car theft laws in California are not considered serious or violent felonies and will not result in an additional strike under the state's three strikes law, one form of car theft is far more serious than others – the act of carjacking. This crime is different from other types of auto theft as it involves taking a vehicle directly from the driver through the use of force or fear. This means either physically harming the driver or a passenger of the vehicle or threatening to physically harm them.

Carjacking is always a felony, and each count is punishable by up to one year of jail time plus probation or a sentence of three, five or nine years in prison, as well as a fine of up to $10,000. It's important to note that those charged with carjacking will face a count for each person present in the vehicle when the crime took place.

Other Circumstances May Add to the Sentence

Additional enhancements may be added to the sentence based on the specific circumstances, including:

  • Great bodily injury. If someone suffered from great bodily injury as a result of the carjacking, an extra three to six years may be added to the sentence.
  • Gang-related crime. If the crime was related to gang activity, a conviction may result in an extra 15 years to life in prison being added to the original sentence.

  • 10-20-Life rule. Under California's 10-20-Life rule, if someone uses a gun during a carjacking, he could face an extra 10 years in prison, and if the gun was fired, then an extra 20 years can be added to the sentence. If a victim was killed or seriously injured, a term of 25 years to life will be added to the sentence.

  • Three strikes law. Because carjacking is considered a violent felony, a conviction will result in a strike being added to the convict's criminal record, and he can be required to serve 85 percent of his sentence before being granted parole. When someone faces a felony charge and already has a strike on his record, the sentence can be twice as long as that required by law for that charge. If someone is charged with a felony and has two strikes on his record, he can face a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

  • Felony murder law. Under California law, if someone is killed during a carjacking, those responsible will automatically be charged with first-degree murder. This applies even in cases where the death was an accident, such as if someone dies from a heart attack due to stress caused by the crime.