California leads the nation in auto-theft rates. Auto-theft in California is a significant problem, and so cases are taken very seriously. The majority of stolen vehicles are retrieved, and defendants are prosecuted aggressively. Taking a car without the owner's consent can be charged as either grand theft auto or the unlawful taking of a vehicle, also known as joy riding. The primary difference between these two crimes is the intent behind the action.
The unlawful taking or use of a vehicle, or joy riding, is characterized by taking a car that is not your own without the owner's consent with the intent to deprive the owner of use of their car either permanently or temporarily, even if for a short amount of time. You do not need to intend to steal the vehicle but rather simply deprive the owner of the use of their car. An example of joyriding is taking an unlocked car around the block on a whim with no intent to permanently deprive the owner of it. Key to a joy riding case is that the defendant did not intent to steal the vehicle. Having been given consent to take and use the vehicle at some point may not be a legal defense. You must have had permission to use the vehicle in that particular instance for it to be a lawful use.
Grand theft auto is a theft, or larceny, charge. This is always charged as grand theft rather than petty theft, regardless of the value of the car. Grand theft auto is characterized by the taking of a car that is not your own without the consent of the owner with the intent to steal it or otherwise deprive the owner of its use or title for some period of time. An example of grand theft auto is stealing an acquaintance's car without their consent with the intent to sell it for parts or stealing a car on the street for your own personal use.
Both these crimes carry serious consequences. Joy riding is punishable by up to one year in a county jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000 when charged as a misdemeanor. The penalties increase significantly if the vehicle is an ambulance, law enforcement, or fire department vehicle in use during an emergency call or response and the defendant knew of its use. Similarly, the penalties increase if the vehicle was modified for disabled use and the defendant was aware of it. In these instances, it is charged as a felony. As a felony, joy riding is punishable by two to four years of imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $10,000. This is considered a wobbler crime because this can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
Grand theft may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony as well, but is typically charged as a felony. It is punishable by up to one year in a county jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000 when charged as a misdemeanor. If charged as a felony, the defendant can face jail time and probation or up to three years of imprisonment. Your own criminal history and the circumstances of the case will influence how you are charged. The penalties can increase under aggravating circumstances.
You should speak with an experienced California criminal defense attorney as soon as possible if you are facing either of these charges. These charges shouldn't be handled alone. With such harsh consequences, it is a good idea to discuss your case with an attorney before you make any decisions or appear in court. There are several defenses to these types of charges, and one might be applicable in your case. For example, you must have had the intent to steal or otherwise deprive the rightful owner of his or her car for some time to be convicted of grand theft auto. While unlikely, it is entirely possible you accidentally took a car that did not belong to you. Similarly, you could have taken the car under the belief that you were permitted to do so. If this was the case, you cannot be convicted. The differences between joy riding and grand theft auto are slight, simply a matter of intent, however, the consequences vary greatly in their severity. An attorney may be able to demonstrate to the prosecution you did not have the intent to steal the vehicle you took. If successful, this could result in your being charged with joy riding, which carries a lesser sentence and is typically only a misdemeanor. In any case, speaking with an attorney can give you an idea of your options for your case and how to best proceed.
Are you facing charges for taking a car? Contact attorney Christopher Martens and his legal team for legal help in Tulare, Fresno or Kings County. Experienced in criminal defense, Mr. Martens will work hard to ensure you have a strong defense against your charges. With over ten years experience in criminal defense, Attorney Martens has taken over 50 cases to trial and will not be afraid to do the same for you. Call our Visalia or Hanford, CA offices at 559-967-7386 or email us at [email protected] for a free consultation.