Orange County Criminal Defense
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California Auto Theft Attorney

Three Types of Auto Theft:

There are three main types of crimes that can be charged involving the theft of a vehicle – Penal Code section 215 (carjacking), Penal Code section 487(d)(1) (grand theft auto) and Vehicle Code section 10851 (joyriding).

Carjacking, pursuant to Penal Code section 215, is defined as a ”felonious taking of a motor vehicle in the possession of another, from his or her person or immediate presence, or from the person or immediate presence of a passenger of the motor vehicle, against his or her will and with the intent to either permanently deprive or temporarily deprive the person in possession of the motor vehicle of his or her possession, accomplished by means of force or fear.” In layman’s terms, carjacking means taking a car from someone by force or fear when that person is either in the car or right next to it. Carjacking is considered a strike offense and is punishable in the state prison by a term of three, five or nine years.

Theft of an automobile is a violation of Penal Code section 487(d)(1). Pursuant to Penal Code section 487(d)(1), theft of an automobile is always considered grand theft in California, regardless of the value of the vehicle. The common term for this crime is “grand theft auto” or GTA. Grand theft auto is a wobbler, and if charged as a felony, the maximum punishment for grand auto theft is 3 years prison. However, if the value of the vehicle was over $65,000, then the defendant will receive an additional and consecutive prison sentence of one year. If the value of the vehicle was over $200,000, then the defendant will receive an additional and consecutive prison sentence of two years.

The unlawful taking of a vehicle, also known as joyriding, as defined by Vehicle Code section 10851, is committed when any person drives or takes a vehicle not his or her own, without the owner’s consent, with the intent to either permanently or temporarily deprive the owner of title or possession of the vehicle. Joyriding is also a wobbler. Misdemeanor joyriding carries a maximum punishment of 12 months county jail. Felony joyriding has a maximum punishment of three years prison, but that prison term is subject to Penal Code section 1170(h), which means the time is still served in the county jail.

Although California grand theft auto and California joyriding appear similar, the main difference between the two laws is the intent of the defendant. A defendant who intends to permanently take a vehicle is guilty of California GTA. However, a defendant who only intends to borrow a vehicle or deprive the owner temporarily of custody can only be charged with Vehicle Code section 10851.

It is the prosecutor’s discretion to determine whether to charge Penal Code section 487(d)(1) or Vehicle Code section 10851 as a misdemeanor or felony. The prosecutor’s decision will depend on the facts of the case and the criminal record of the defendant. With offices that can defend auto theft in Orange County, Los Angeles County, and Riverside County, our attorneys are able to mount the defense necessary for your case.

If there are other crimes being committed in addition to the auto theft, then a prosecutor will most likely charge a felony. For example, if a defendant actually breaks into a locked vehicle before stealing it, then a prosecutor will charge felony second-degree burglary in California, pursuant to Penal Code section 459-460(b), in addition to felony grand theft auto, pursuant to Penal Code section 487(a).

Elements of Auto Theft

In order for the prosecution to prove carjacking, in violation of Penal Code section 215, they must prove each of the following elements of carjacking beyond a reasonable doubt:

1. The defendant took a motor vehicle that was not their own;

2. The vehicle was taken from the immediate presence of a person who possessed the vehicle or was its passenger;

3. The vehicle was taken against that person’s will;

4. The defendant used force or fear to take that vehicle to prevent that person from resisting; AND

5. When the defendant used force or fear to take that vehicle, they intended to deprive the other person of possession of the vehicle either temporarily or permanently.

In order for the prosecution to prove grand theft auto, in violation of Penal Code section 487(d)(1), they must prove each of the following elements of auto theft beyond a reasonable doubt:

1. The defendant took possession of a vehicle owned by someone else;

2. The defendant took the vehicle without the owner’s (or the owner’s agent’s) consent;

3. When the defendant took the vehicle, the defendant intended to deprive the owner of the vehicle permanently (or to remove it from the owner’s possession for so extended a period of time that the owner would be deprived of a major portion of the value or enjoyment of the vehicle); AND

4. The defendant moved the vehicle, even a small distance, and kept it for any period of time, however brief.

In order for the prosecution to prove the unlawful taking of a vehicle, in violation of Vehicle Code section 10851(a), they must prove each of the following elements of joyriding beyond a reasonable doubt:

1. The defendant took or drove someone else’s vehicle without the owner’s consent; AND

2. When the defendant did so, the defendant intended to drive the owner of possession or ownership of the vehicle for any period of time.

Defense to Auto Theft

If a defendant is charged with carjacking, then an attorney that knows the elements of carjacking can provide the best defense. For example, the defendant’s intent to take the vehicle must be before or at the same time the defendant using force or fear. If the defendant first uses force or fear, then decides to take the vehicle later – that’s not carjacking as defined by Penal Code section 215.

Likewise, there may be a defense based on intent for grand theft auto. GTA, as defined in Penal Code section 487(d)(1), requires an intent to permanently deprive the owner of his vehicle. If the defendant temporarily borrowed the vehicle, then that could be a defense to auto theft.

Owner’s consent is another common defense. If the owner of the car consented to the car being taken, then there is no crime. However, consent can be limited. An owner that gave consent to use a vehicle in the past does not equate to consent to use the vehicle now. And an owner that consents for the vehicle to be used for a limited purpose does not equate to consent to use the vehicle for all purposes.

For the unlawful taking of a vehicle, in violation of Vehicle Code section 10851(a), consent obtained by fraud or misrepresentation still counts as consent. However, fraud or misrepresentation to obtain consent is only a defense for Vehicle Code section 10851(a), and not Penal Code section 487.

Other Consequences

Not only can an auto theft conviction lead to criminal penalties, but it can also have drastic employment, licensing and immigration consequences. Grand theft auto and other auto theft crimes are considered crimes of moral turpitude, which are crimes that relate to a person’s honesty. Having an auto theft conviction can prevent a person from finding a job or lead to a person being fired from their current job. Furthermore, many professions that require licensing from a state board, such as doctors, pharmacists, nurses, lawyers, accountants, contractors, teachers, real estate agents and stock brokers, all require background checks. A professional who has a joyriding or other auto theft conviction on their record risks losing their professional license, or never acquiring it in the first place. Perhaps the most severe impact of an auto theft conviction involves immigration consequences. Non-citizens who are permanent residents, with a green card, or temporary visitors, with a visa, can be denied admission or naturalization or even deported, with a carjacking or other auto theft conviction on their record.

The Right Lawyer

Choosing the right criminal defense lawyer will be the most important decision someone can make when facing criminal auto theft charges such as grand theft auto. Many people who face auto theft charges, such as joyriding, are good people who made a mistake or exercised poor judgment. There are also some people who have been wrongfully accused of an auto theft, based on a misunderstanding or false evidence. You need an attorney who will listen to your side of the story carefully, who will evaluate the evidence thoroughly, who will negotiate with the judge and the District Attorney’s office skillfully, and who will fight in trial aggressively. You need an attorney like Fred Thiagarajah.

Our attorneys have previously worked for District Attorney’s office and have the negotiating skills and trial experience necessary to get the best results for his clients, for criminal cases and immigration consequences. We have helped clients with carjacking and other auto theft charges in the past. For an example of our work, please see our case results and read our client testimonials. With offices in Newport Beach, Long Beach, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside and Murrieta, our attorneys have criminal defense experience in Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.

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