What are the penalties and punishments for vehicle theft?

Vehicle theft is a serious crime with serious penalties, and depending on the intent laws in the state where a defendant is charged and the circumstances of the theft, it can be either a felony or a misdemeanor. Possible sentences for vehicle theft will also be affected by a defendant's criminal history. 

Vehicle Theft and State Laws

Some states have statutes specifically titled, “Vehicle Theft.” Alaska, California, and Georgia have penal codes preventing vehicle thefts in addition to their general theft statutes. Alaska automatically classifies a vehicle theft as a Class C felony. Other states will address vehicle thefts through their general theft statutes. In Texas, the value of the property will generally control the level of the offense. The higher the value of the vehicle, the higher the range of punishment for the vehicle theft.

An inexpensive vehicle theft, (under $1500), is punished as a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in county jail. If the car is a collector vehicle owned by Jay Leno and valued at over $200,000.00, then the vehicle theft could be charged as a first degree felony offense punishable by 5-99 years in prison. The basic rule is that misdemeanor offenses are usually punished by probation or some period of time in the county jail. Felonies can qualify for probated sentences, but can also include significant prison time.

Vehicle Theft and Punishment Enhancements

Beyond general classifications as a misdemeanor or felony, most states have provisions for enhancing the punishment ranges or penalties for vehicle theft depending on how the offense was committed. If the vehicle was operated in a dangerous way during theft, then Alaska will increase the punishment range. In California, if the vehicle was a police car, the level of vehicle theft jumps from a misdemeanor offense to a felony level. Texas will increase the punishment range to the next higher level if the vehicle theft was committed during a month and county designated by the governor as disaster area.

Criminal history will also affect the penalties associated with the vehicle theft charge. Virtually every state has some type of provision for increasing punishments for those defendants with repetitions of the same offense. Vehicle theft charges normally classified as misdemeanors will be elevated to felony level offenses if a defendant has prior convictions for theft. These punishment enhancements are usually in addition to general habitual offender enhancement statutes. 

Even though the potential for enhanced penalties seem overwhelming, a defendant charged with vehicle theft has opportunities for working through the charge. Many prosecutors will agree to drop enhancements if a defendant pays restitution upfront, participates in community service programs, or takes affirmative steps to correct damage done to a victim prior to the entry of a plea.

Getting Help

A vehicle theft charge is anything but a joy ride. Because the charges, punishments, and punishment enhancements can be complicated, a person charged with such a crime should consult an attorney. A criminal defense attorney can help deflate many punishment enhancements by steering a defendant through the penalties and rehabilitative options available in their jurisdiction for vehicle theft allegations.