What Is Grand Theft Auto? Defenses? Punishment?

Grand theft auto, also referred to as “GTA,” is not just a video game.  Rather, it is known as vehicle theft and / or just auto theft.  It defined as the unauthorized taking of another’s car with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the car.  It may be by force, trick or false pretenses.  Sometimes, the suspect takes the car to a “chop shop” to have the car disassembled for money or the suspect intentionally fails to return a rental car.
About This Article Briefly:  Grand theft auto (GTA) is the intentional taking of another’s car without the owner’s consent and with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the car.  The offense can be filed as a misdemeanor or a felony.  Three years is the maximum punishment if convicted of felony GTA, before sentencing enhancements apply, if any.  Probation is possible in certain cases.
Grand theft auto is a “wobbler.”  This means that the charge can be filed as a misdemeanor or as a felony, depending upon the circumstances, the value of the car and the defendant’s prior criminal record.  Most commonly, it is filed as a felony as a violation of Penal Code § 487(d)(1), however it sometimes is filed as a violation of Vehicle Code § 18851 (unlawful taking of a vehicle, including joyriding) if the intent of the suspect appears to be to eventually return the car to the owner.

Regardless of whether the car is valued at $500 or $50,000, the theft of a car is always filed at grand theft auto.  In other words, there is no such thing as “petty theft auto,” even if the value of the car is below $950, the statutory limit between grand theft and petty theft for most other items (this does not include firearms and certain farm animals). 

However, if the value of the car exceeds $65,000, the client faces an additional year of prison time if convicted.  If the car’s value exceeds $200,000, the client faces an additional two years in prison (Penal Code § 12022.6).

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Without these sentencing enhancements, one convicted of misdemeanor grand theft auto faces a maximum one year sentence in county jail, plus restitution to the victim for the value of the car and sometimes to law enforcement for their expenses in locating and recovering the car.  If the client is convicted of felony grand theft auto, he or she faces a minimum of sixteen months and a maximum of three years in state prison, plus restitution similar to that facing one convicted of misdemeanor grand theft. 

Formal probation is possible on a felony GTA conviction and informal probation is possible in misdemeanor GTA, depending upon the client’s criminal history, the facts of the case and the victim’s opinion of the taking.
   
The defenses to grand theft auto begin with consent of the owner.  This can be a tough defense to assert because the owner is most often the person who calls police to begin the case. Usually, the police, before going to the trouble of investigating further, make sure that the owner’s permission was never given for the client to take the car.  However, the client may argue or believe that because the owner gave the client permission to use the car in the past, such permission continued.

The second most common defense revolves around intent.  If one did not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the car, the crime may be simply joyriding, which is a crime itself and is prosecuted quite often, especially when intent is difficult to prove.  When this is the case, the prosecutor will file a complaint for joyriding (Vehicle Code § 10851) so that a conviction is easier to achieve.

Grand theft auto often is charged in conjunction with other crimes.  These can be carjacking (Penal Code § 215), burglary (Penal Code § 459) and robbery (Penal Code § 211), so understanding the defenses to these similar, yet distinguishable crimes, can be important towards reaching a plea bargain that the client can accept.

With the passage of Proposition 47, some felony grand theft auto convictions may be eligible for reduction to a misdemeanor if the value of the car taken is less than $950 and the defendant is otherwise not disqualified from Prop 47 relief.

For more information about vehicle theft, click on the following articles:
  1. What Is Joyriding?
  2. What Is Tampering with a Vehicle (Vehicle Code § 10852)?
  3. The Police Did Not Read Me My Miranda Rights – Will My Case Be Dismissed?
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