Car/Auto Theft

In 2012, the FBI recorded over 700,000 motor vehicle thefts in the United States, resulting in more than 4.3 billion dollars in damages. Auto thefts make up a significant portion of larceny crimes and, for that reason, many states have enacted special statutes to deal specifically with the theft of motor vehicles.  Although these statutes may vary from state to state, most prohibit the theft of common vehicles, including cars, trucks, motorcycles, and larger commercial vehicles like buses or semi trucks.

Grand Theft Auto

Auto theft may occur in a variety of circumstances, and many states have statutes addressing various auto theft crimes based on these circumstances. One of the most common of these crimes is grand theft auto. Grand theft auto typically applies to a theft of a parked vehicle that is not occupied by a driver or passenger. While some larceny crimes are deemed “petty crimes” because of the low value of the items stolen, grand theft auto ascribes a more severe charge to a larceny crime because the item (the car) is worth so much. Grand theft auto is typically charged as a felony and can result in jail time of a year or more.

In order to prove that grand theft auto has occurred, a prosecutor must show that the defendant took a vehicle that belonged to someone else with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of their vehicle. These elements are similar to other theft crimes and prevent defendants from being charged with theft for mistaken use of a vehicle. For instance, because grand theft auto requires an intent to steal, a man who mistakenly believes that his friend has authorized him to borrow a car would not be convicted of grand theft auto for driving away in his friend’s vehicle. Similarly, if a businessman mistakenly drives off a rental car lot with the wrong car, this would not be an auto theft crime either.

If a person knowingly takes a car that does not belong to him, but intends to return it to the owner eventually, some states will charge the offender with a separate crime, known as joyriding, which is a misdemeanor.


Another form of auto theft crime is carjacking, which is a type of robbery that involves a motor vehicle. A carjacking occurs when the vehicle is taken directly from the owner or driver of the car. Typically, as in a robbery, violence or the threat of violence is used to steal the car from another.  Some states consider a carjacking to occur even when a victim is not near their car, but is threatened or forced to hand over their keys. Most states categorize carjacking as a felony and, because force or violence often accompanies the carjacking, a defendant may also be charged with battery or assault when appropriate. In many states, carjacking is considered a more serious offense than grand theft auto and can result in jail time of ten years or more.