Grand Theft Auto - What is The Legal Definition?
Grand Theft Auto - What is The Legal Definition?

Grand Theft Auto - What is The Legal Definition?

Tag: What Is Grand Auto Theft

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The definition of grand theft auto is to take someone else’s car, without permission and with the intent permanently or significantly to deprive the owner of it. The offense is a type of auto theft. In many states, it can be charged as a felony offense that carries more than a year in prison.

What is the crime of grand theft auto?

Grand theft auto, or GTA, is a type of auto theft. Some states call it by a different name, like:

  • larceny of a vehicle,
  • felony theft,
  • first-degree theft,
  • auto theft,
  • car theft, or
  • motor vehicle theft.

In California, it is grand theft auto. It is prohibited by California Penal Code 487(d)(1). The criminal elements of the crime are:

  1. the defendant took a car that was owned by someone else,
  2. the stolen vehicle was worth more than $950,
  3. the defendant did not have the owner’s consent or permission to take the car,
  4. the defendant moved the car, even if only a short distance, and kept it for any length of time, and
  5. in taking the vehicle, the defendant intended to either:
    1. permanently deprive the owner of the car, or
    2. deprive the owner of the car for long enough that the owner would lose a significant portion of the value or enjoyment of it.1

Why is it called “grand theft auto”?

The name comes from the fact that the stolen item is a car and from the 2 types of theft offenses that are recognized by criminal law:

  • petty theft, which is for items of relatively low financial value, and
  • grand theft, which is for more expensive items.

Different states use different threshold amounts for distinguishing between petty and grand theft. In California, the amount is $950.2

Stealing a car that is worth less than $950 in California would not be grand theft auto. Instead, it would be petty theft.

How is it different from joyriding?

Joyriding is a different criminal act that does not require an intention to permanently or significantly deprive the owner of his or her vehicle. Instead, joyriding involves depriving the owner of his or her vehicle for any length of time.

For example, in California, joyriding is called the unlawful taking of a vehicle.3 The criminal elements are:

  1. the defendant took or drove someone else’s car without his or her consent, and
  2. when taking the car, the defendant intended to deprive the owner of it for any length of time.4

In some cases, defendants can face criminal charges for both grand theft auto and joyriding. These charges for separate crimes can stem from a single incident.

Is it different from carjacking?

Carjacking is different in that it requires the use of force or threats to get the owner out of the car in order to steal the vehicle. Grand theft auto does not require force or the threat of it.

In California, carjacking is covered by Penal Code 215. The elements of the crime are:

  1. someone had possession of a car,
  2. the defendant took that car from that person’s immediate presence,
  3. the defendant acted against the person’s will and used force or fear, and
  4. the defendant acted with the intent to permanently or temporarily deprive the person of their car.5

Because carjacking is grand theft auto, plus the use of force or threats, many carjacking charges also come with charges for grand theft auto.

What are the penalties of a conviction?

In many states, grand theft auto is a low-level felony offense that carries over a year in prison, a stint on probation, and fines.

In California, grand theft auto is a wobbler. It can be charged and prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Law enforcement is supposed to consider the defendant’s criminal history and the circumstances of the offense in deciding which charge to file. However, California prosecutors, including those at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, have a strong tendency towards filing felony charges.

If it is pursued as a felony and it would be a first-time offense for auto theft, a defendant could face:

  • 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in county jail or state prison, and/or
  • up to $10,000 in fines.6

If the defendant does have a prior conviction for an auto theft crime, though, the potential jail time for felony grand theft auto increases to 2, 3, or 4 years.7

If the case includes other charges, such as carjacking, joyriding, driving under the influence (DUI), or receiving stolen property, there would be additional penalties, as well. For example, if the charges include a count of carjacking, a conviction would be for a violent felony that would add a “strike” on the defendant’s criminal record under California’s three-strikes law.8

What are some legal defenses to a grand theft auto charge?

Criminal defense lawyers can raise several legal defenses to fight against a charge of grand theft auto. Some of the most common include:

  • the defendant did not intend to steal the vehicle,
  • the defendant had a good faith belief that the car was their own,
  • the owner’s deprivation was not significant enough to amount to grand theft auto,
  • the owner of the vehicle consented or gave the defendant permission to take the car, and
  • the owner is knowingly making false accusations that the defendant stole the car.

For example: A valet brings Rob a car that looks exactly like his own. He drives away and only realizes that it is not his car when he gets home and finds things in the trunk that are not his. He immediately drives the car back to the valet.

Because of the significant penalties of a conviction, defendants should strongly consider calling a local law firm and getting the legal help of a criminal defense attorney to raise these defenses and fight the charge.

Legal References

  1. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) 1800.
  2. California Penal Code 490.2 PC.
  3. California Vehicle Code 10851 VC.
  4. CALCRIM 1820.
  5. CALCRIM 1650.
  6. California Penal Code 489 PC and 672 PC.
  7. California Penal Code 666.5 PC.
  8. California Penal Code 667 PC.

About the Author

What Is Grand Auto Theft

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.

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