Auto theft is a common occurrence in California. Police reports show that auto theft includes both standard and high-end vehicles. When auto theft is mentioned, the focus shifts to high-end cars like Bentleys, Rolls Royce, Range rovers, and Mercedes. However, new reporting shows older, inexpensive car models are targets of auto-theft, primarily for the parts like minerals in catalytic converters. Though on a decline, auto theft is a concern for the state because of the losses car owners incur. Data from the FBI in 2020 puts the loss at $9,166 per theft. These numbers motivate prosecutors to seek convictions in every auto-theft case.

According to California law Penal Code 487(d), it is an offense to drive another person’s vehicle valued at $950 or more without his/her permission. If convicted, you risk spending time behind bars and parting with significant sums of money in fines. It, therefore, is in your best interest to fight off these charges with the help of a criminal defense attorney of repute. Rely on the Chula Vista Criminal Attorney team today to challenge these charges to secure the best legal outcome.

Grand Theft Auto (GTA) — Overview

Most individuals accused of car theft either take the vehicle without authority from the owner to:

  • Permanently take possession of the vehicle or for a significant portion of time — This action results in prosecution under PC 487(d), grand auto theft.
  • Temporarily take possession of the vehicle — If you take another person’s car to enjoy a drive with the intention of returning it back to the owner, these actions best describe joyriding, a violation of Vehicle Code 10851.

The above distinction is fundamental as both offenses are punishable by varying penalties, with grand theft auto resulting in more significant penalties.

PC 487(d)’s definition of grand theft auto is founded on critical elements of the crime. Prosecutors have to prove these elements beyond a reasonable doubt if you are to be found guilty of grand theft auto. They are:

  • You took another person’s car.
  • You lacked the owner’s permission to take the vehicle — Permission can be expressed or implied. Express permission is direct authority conveyed to you by the vehicle’s owner.

For example, an owner instructs one of his staff members to drive the vehicle to the auto dealer.

Implied authority is established in trust relationships. It is not directly given, but by the nature of the relationship between the car’s owner and another, it is implied.

For example, when a car owner leaves his/her vehicle at the car dealership to be fixed, the mechanic is expected to take the car or a test drive to ensure the car is adequately repaired. The owner need not give an express authority for the mechanic to drive the vehicle, but by leaving his/her car keys and expecting all issues to be resolved, the authority is implied.

  • When you took the vehicle, you intended to:
  1. Permanently deprive the owner of the rights to the vehicle, or
  2. Take it away for a portion of time significant enough to deprive him/her of a substantial value of the car or enjoyment of it.
  • You moved the car over a distance and retained it for a while — The distance can be short and the time brief.
  • The vehicle is valued at $950 or more.

The above elements describe auto-theft by larceny. However, you are also liable for grand theft auto charges if you engage in the following behavior.

  • Persuading another, through false pretenses, to transfer ownership of his/her vehicle to you
  • Abusing your authority in a trust relationship to take another’s property — This is best described as using embezzlement to commit grand theft auto.
  • Using trick to convince another to transfer ownership of his/her car to you

Following the above elaboration of grand auto theft, the following examples fit this definition and will likely result in prosecution under Penal Code 487(d).

  • Stealing a vehicle to sell it off to another
  • Taking a vehicle from a parking lot, driving it off to a vendor dealing in vehicle parts
  • Entering a running car and simply driving off the car
  • Stealing a vehicle from a driveway to sell it for parts but later abandoning the plan


Joyriding is a violation of Vehicle Code 10851. The law makes it an offense to take another’s car without their consent. VC 10851 requires the prosecution to prove three elements to establish your guilt. It must be true that:

  • You took or drove another’s car
  • The owner did not consent to you taking or driving the vehicle
  • You intended to deny the owner the vehicle’s possession fo any period — This means you are criminally liable under VC 10851 whether you denied the owner possession of his/her vehicle temporarily or permanently.

Note: The intent to deny is a question of fact to be determined in court. That means intent is established by reviewing the circumstances in the case. Further, intent varies from case to case. Therefore, possession of a vehicle under suspicious circumstances is enough to prove intent.

So how is grand theft auto different from joyriding?

Grand theft auto requires an intent to steal the car permanently or long enough to deprive the vehicle’s owner of enjoyment or a significant value. On the other hand, Joyriding only requires you intend to deprive the owner of the car for any period, no matter how brief.

Another consideration is the owner’s permission. In grand auto theft, you can obtain an owner’s permission in grand auto theft through false pretenses, trickery, or embezzlement. This is enough to result in criminal culpability. However, you are not guilty of joyriding if you obtain permission from the car’s owner, even if the permission was obtained from fraudulent means or deceit.

Penalties for Auto Theft

Grand theft auto is considered theft for purposes of the law. That means, similar to grand theft under Penal Code 487, GTA is also a wobbler. The DA could pursue misdemeanor or felony charges. Further, GTA penalties are equivalent to those detailed for grand theft.

Most first-time offenders will be charged with misdemeanor violations if they do not have a criminal record. However, the DA could decide to pursue felony charges if he/she is convinced the circumstances in the case warrant the charge or if the defendant has prior convictions.

If convicted on misdemeanor charges, you could spend up to one year in jail.

Should the DA pursue felony charges, you are looking at 16 months, 2, or 3 years in jail and a fine of no more than $10,000. The judge could also require you to serve time behind bars and pay the fine.

If you have a prior conviction for auto theft, the judge will rely on Penal Code 666.5 for sentencing. This law issues sentence enhancements for second-time convictions for grand auto theft. You will serve a prison sentence of 2, 3, or 4 years and/or pay a fine of $10,000.

Note: second-time GTA offenses are felonies.

Sentence Enhancements for High-Valued Cars

Penalty enhancements when dealing with high-valued cars depend on the value of the vehicles. The penalties issued will be served consecutively.

If the car you stole is valued at north of $65,000, one year will be added to your prison sentence. Should the vehicle's value be worth more than $200,000, you will receive an additional two years to your prison sentence.

Joyriding Penalties

A conviction for joyriding can result in either a misdemeanor or felony penalties.

Misdemeanor convictions result in jail sentences of up to one year and fines not exceeding $5,000. Felony convictions, on the other hand, result in a prison sentence of 16 months, 2 or 3 years, and/or a fine not exceeding $10,000.

Penalties for Joyriding Law Enforcement Vehicles, Fire Department Cars, or Disabled Placid Vehicles

You are likely to spend 2, 3, or 4 years in prison and a $10,000 fine for felony joyriding. The judge could issue these penalties if you took or drove off with a law enforcement vehicle, ambulance, a fire department vehicle on an emergency call, or a disabled placard car. Further, you should have known or reasonably knew that the car you took or stole was either of those mentioned above.

Penalties for Prior Felony Convictions or Vehicle Theft

Joyriding convictions change to felonies with the following potential sentences:

  • 2, 3, or 4 years in jail and/or
  • A fine not exceeding $10,000

Judges issue the above penalties if you have:

  • One or more prior convictions for felony GTA,
  • One or more prior convictions for felony joyriding, or
  • One or more prior convictions for stealing cargo valued at more than $950. This is a violation of Penal Code 487h

Legal Defenses Used in Grand Theft Auto Charges

As detailed above, the penalties if convicted are consequential. You will spend significant time behind bars and part with substantial sums in fines. Moreover, a conviction adversely impacts your life post-conviction. Criminal records impact social and financial aspects of one's life.

You can adequately challenge the charges to secure reduced charges or dismissal with a criminal defense attorney. Below are some defenses your attorney can use.

  1. Lack of Intent

Revisiting the elements in a grand auto theft case, it is upon the prosecution to prove you intended to steal or deprive the owner of the rights to the vehicle. Without intent, you are not guilty of the crime. Your attorney will argue you lacked intent to the jury if the case is brought up for trial. Alternatively, your attorney can focus the prosecutor on the lack of intent in plea bargain negotiations. The aim is to reduce the grand theft auto charges to joyriding, which carries a lighter sentence if you do not have prior convictions.

  1. False Accusation

Some descendants have been convicted on auto theft charges, yet they were falsely accused. Most of these cases end up with the defendant pleading guilty to auto theft because they could not produce evidence to challenge the false accusations, like providing an alibi for when the crime occurred.

Our team at Chula Vista Criminal Attorney is experienced in handling false allegations. We investigate the allegations independently and provide evidence to support this defense. Further, we interrogate the witnesses under oath, and with our experience, we uncover the inconsistencies.

Most defendants are falsely accused by their disgruntled romantic partners, friends, or colleagues aiming to pay back a perceived wrong or benefit in custody battles.

  1. Claim of Right

You are not guilty of grand theft auto if you drive your car or have a good faith belief that said the vehicle belongs to you. This defense is applicable even if your conviction was mistaken or unreasonable.

Note: With this defense, the defendant bears the burden of proof to establish the claim. With proper evidence, this defense will result in the dismissal of your charges.

  1. Owner’s Consent

If the vehicle’s owner consented to you using the car, you would not be found guilty under PC 487(d). Consent means no theft took place because you had permission to use it.

However, consent is further analyzed by answering two questions:

Did You Use The Car Within The Scope Of The Owner’s Consent?

Your use of the vehicle should be within the agreed parameters.

Consider valets. Vehicle owner's hand over the car keys to valets or them to park the car and return it when the owner is back. Consent, in this case, is limited to driving the vehicle to and from the parking lot. Should the valet decide to drive around town, they are liable for auto theft charges since these actions go beyond the scope of the permission.

Did You Have Permission For The Use That Resulted In The Auto Theft Charges?

It is important to emphasize that past permission is not a defense. The owner’s prior permission to use the vehicle does not mean you have permission to use the car again.

However, an experienced attorney will introduce evidence to argue the permission was implied thanks to the trust relationship between you and the owner.

Offenses Related to Grand Theft Auto

Prosecutors can introduce any of the following charges or opt to pursue them instead of the grand auto theft charges.

  1. Carjacking

Taking another’s vehicle through force or fear is a felony offense under PC 215. You will only be convicted if the following elements are proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

  • An individual had possession of the vehicle.
  • You took control of it from their immediate presence.
  • You hijacked the car against the driver's will through fear or force.
  • You intended to deprive the individual of the vehicle temporarily or permanently.

Carjacking is a felony offense punishable by a jail sentence of 3, 5, or 9 years in jail and/or a fine of no more than $10,000. You could also remain on probation instead of serving jail time if you are eligible.

If your victim suffers great bodily harm, you will receive an additional three to six years to be consecutive to the penalty issued for the carjacking offense. Further, if you committed the carjacking offense in furtherance of gang-related activities, you will receive an additional 15 years-to-life prison sentence, to be served consecutively.

It is also worth pointing out the additional penalties when using a gun in a carjacking incident. A judge will issue 20 years for firing a firearm and 25 years to life for seriously injuring or killing another with a firearm.

  1. Auto Burglary

PC 459 defines auto burglary as entering a locked vehicle of structure with the intent to commit petty or grand theft or a felony once inside.

Note: PC 459 addresses theft in residential and commercial establishments and burglary of a car. We will focus on the burglary of a vehicle in this context.

Prosecutors need to establish the following as true for you to be found guilty under PC 459.

  • You accessed a locked vehicle.
  • You intended to commit theft or a felony after you access the car — Theft involves stealing property in the vehicle, while felony refers to stealing the vehicle.
  • When you accessed the locked vehicle, the property you intended to steal was valued at more than $950.

Auto burglary is a felony. The offense is punishable by a jail term of 16 months, 2, or 3 years. You could also be required to pay $10,000 in fines.

PC 459 considers a trailer coach a residential structure. Thus, if you committed a burglary on a trailer coach, you will be found guilty of a felony, punishable by 2, 4, or 6 years in prison. A further fine penalty will be issued totaling no more than $10,000.

Receiving or Buying Stolen Property

Penal Code 496(d) makes it a crime to receive, buy, sell, withhold, or conceal property. In this case, a car you know was obtained through theft or extortion.

Prosecutors must prove the following for you to be convicted of the crime.

  • You received, bought, sold, or aided in selling, withheld, or concealed stolen property — Received under PC 496 refers to taking possession and control of the said property. Possession does not only imply sole possession, but it incorporates possession by two or more individuals simultaneously.

Further, you can possess property without actually touching or holding said property. In this situation, you have constructive possession, which means you have control over the goods or have a right to control the goods.

  • You knew the property was stolen or obtained through extortion when you took any of the abovementioned actions.

An offense under PC 496 is pursued as a misdemeanor or a felony violation. The property value in the case primarily determines whether the DA prefers misdemeanor or felony charges. You will likely face misdemeanor violation changes if the property is valued at $950 or less. Should the property’s value exceed $950, the DA will pursue felony charges.

Misdemeanor violators are punished by serving summary probation terms or a one-year jail sentence upon conviction. Additionally, a judge will impose a fine of $1,000.

Felony offenders, on the other hand, either serve formal probation terms or time in jail not exceeding three years. A conviction also results in a fine not exceeding $10,000.

  1. Petty Theft

It is an offense under PC 488 and 490.2 to steal a property valued at $950 or less. The DA will prefer petty theft charges instead of grand theft auto should you steal a vehicle valued at $950 or less. Further, petty theft charges could be introduced alongside grand auto theft charges if you are accused of stealing property in the vehicle valued at $950 or less.

Prosecutors must establish the following elements as true for you to be convicted.

  • You took possession of someone else's property — Note that you will face petty theft charges even if the victim in the case was not the owner of the property.
  • You took said property without the owner’s consent
  • You intended to deprive the owner of the rights to their property either temporarily or permanently. If you intend to return the property, you must do so within a reasonable time. What is reasonable is a matter of fact for the judge or jury to determine.
  • You moved the property over a distance, no matter how small, and kept it, no matter how brief a time.

Petty theft is a misdemeanor offense. Offenders are punished by a jail term of up to one year and a possible fine penalty of $1,000. A judge could also issue probation terms as opposed to jail time.

Contact a Reputable Chula Vista Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

Facing criminal prosecution can be challenging, especially when you consider the potential of spending time behind bars and having a criminal record. A defense attorney can be the help you need to avoid the consequences of a conviction. It is in your best interest to engage with one.

At Chula Vista Criminal Attorney, we take pride in the successful legal representation we have offered over the years. We endeavor to deliver the best legal services to our clients and are looking forward to helping you or your loved one. Contact our team today at 619-877-6894 if you need legal aid to fight grand theft auto charges.