A specific form of grand theft includes auto theft, or as it is more commonly known, “grand theft auto” or “GTA” (Penal Code section 487(d)1). In order to prove this offense, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant:
- took someone else’s car without permission
- the car was $950 or more
- intended to deprive the owner of the vehicle
It is not necessary that the defendant intended to permanently deprive the car’s owner of its use, but merely long enough that the owner would be deprived of a significant portion of the value or enjoyment of the car. For some car owner’s, this could amount to as little as a few days or weeks.
Similar to grand theft, auto theft is also punishable in the same manner. As a misdemeanor, the defendant may be sentenced to several years (usually three) of summary probation and up to one-year custody in county jail, along with fines/fees and restitution (if any). However, given the hardship often caused to the owner forced to make do without his/her a car, especially for a prolonged period of time, and the resources usually expended by law enforcement to recover a stolen car, a prosecutor can be expected to file the charge as a felony.
If the defendant is convicted of a felony, the person may either receive a term of formal probation (a probation officer is assigned to the defendant) and in addition to fines/fees, up to one year of custody in the county jail. If probation is denied, the defendant is facing confinement in state prison for 16 months, 2 years or 3 years. Of course, this assumes the defendant has no prior theft convictions or relevant criminal history. Finally, if it is a “high-end” car of exceptional value (a 2020 Lincoln Navigator, Maserati, Lamborghini, etc.) then the judge may impose up to two additional years of state prison.
Certainly, as it relates to the elements of the offense, if it can be reasonable established or inferred by relevant evidence that the client thought he/she had consent to use the car (“girlfriend uses ex-boyfriend’s car, but he gets mad and falsely states he never gave her permission”), or the car was erroneously over-valued above the $950 threshold, or that the client’s use of the car was intended to be a very short time, then an experienced attorney may be able to persuade the prosecutor that the case should be dismissed or reduced to a misdemeanor instead. And, if such mitigating evidence is available, then perhaps the appropriate charge is not grand theft auto at all, but rather, “joyriding”.
Joyriding, or the unlawful taking of a car (Penal Code section 10851(a)), is an offense that occurs when a defendant
- take’s someone else’s car without permission
- intended to deprive the owner of the car for any period of time
Such offenses often involve minors or young drivers’ who “borrow” someone else’s car for a short period of time (a day or two), but do not possess the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the car. In many cases, even though the prosecutor has the discretion to file this offense as a misdemeanor or as a felony, this charge will likely be filed as a misdemeanor, punishable by several years of informal probation, up to one year of custody in county jail, and restitution to the victim (assuming no theft-related convictions and criminal history).
If, however, the underlying circumstances do not warrant such consideration, and a felony is filed, the penalties may include a term of formal probation (a probation officer is assigned to the defendant) and in addition to fines/fees, up to one year of custody in county jail. If probation is denied, the defendant is facing confinement in state prison for 16 months, 2 years or 3 years. Consequently, if the client bears some criminal responsibility for the manner in which the car was taken, then it will be important for the attorney and the client to discuss a strategy that may help lessen the charge and associated penalties (such as community service, Cal-Trans, etc.).