Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib

Can You Be Convicted for Stealing a Car You Didn’t Drive?


Yes, you can be convicted for stealing a car even if you didn’t drive it. In legal terms, theft, including car theft, does not necessarily require the physical act of driving the vehicle away. However, it may not be immediately clear what counts as stealing a car if you don’t actually drive it. Let’s break down how the crime of grand theft auto is defined in California, when actions may count as non-driving auto theft, 

What Are the Grounds for Conviction for Grand Theft Auto

For a conviction of grand theft auto (GTA) in California, the prosecution must prove certain key elements beyond a reasonable doubt. The first and most obvious point is simple: the defendant must have taken a car that belonged to someone else. “Taking” in this context means moving the vehicle, even a short distance, and keeping it for any period of time, however brief. 

Taking may also refer to preventing the owner from accessing the vehicle, such as by locking them out of the garage where it is stored. This falls under the California Penal Code 487, which also defines stealing as “fraudulently appropriat[ing] property which has been entrusted” to you.

Additional elements that are required for a crime to count as theft without driving include:

  • Intent to Permanently Deprive: The defendant must have intended to deprive the owner of the vehicle permanently. This means the intention was to steal the car, not just borrow it. Even if the defendant intended to return the vehicle eventually, if the intent was to deprive the owner of it for a significant period, this element can be satisfied.
  • No Consent: The vehicle must have been taken without the owner’s consent, and consent obtained through fraud or deception does not count as true consent.
  • Value of the Vehicle: For a charge of GTA, the car must typically be more than $950. However, any theft of an automobile is often treated as GTA in California, regardless of the car’s value, due to the nature of the item stolen.
  • Knowledge of Ownership: The defendant must have known that the vehicle belonged to someone else. 
  • Completed Act of Theft: The thievery must have been completed, and the defendant must have successfully taken the car, even if they didn’t keep it for long. 

Additionally, there are charges related to stealing a car that do not require you to have actually committed the act. Here are a few scenarios where you could be convicted of another crime without driving the vehicle:

  • Aiding and Abetting: If you assist someone else in stealing the car, such as by providing tools, information, or acting as a lookout, you could be charged with aiding and abetting theft.
  • Conspiracy to Commit Theft: If you were involved in planning the theft of the car, even if you weren’t present when the theft occurred, you could be charged with conspiracy.
  • Attempted Theft: If you made an attempt to steal the car (e.g., breaking into it, trying to hotwire it) but were unable to drive it away for some reason, you could still be charged with attempted theft.
  • Receiving Stolen Property: If you knowingly receive or purchase a car that has been stolen, even if you didn’t participate in the actual act, you can be charged with receiving stolen property.
  • Constructive Possession: Having control over a stolen vehicle, even without driving it, can be enough for a conviction, such as having the keys without driving it.
  • Accessory After the Fact: If you help someone avoid detection or arrest after they have stolen a car, you could be charged as an accessory after the fact.

In addition to the above, a person can also be charged under California Vehicle Code 10851 for “unlawful taking or driving of a vehicle” or joyriding. However, joyriding can only be charged if you have actually driven the car.

The specific charges and the likelihood of conviction would depend on the details of the case and the laws of the jurisdiction where the crime occurred. Legal representation is crucial in such cases, as an experienced lawyer can provide advice specific to the circumstances and the relevant law.

Consequences of a Grand Theft Auto Conviction

In California, grand theft auto is considered a serious crime and is defined as the taking of a vehicle with a value of more than $950. The penalties can vary based on several factors, including the circumstances of the crime, the value of the vehicle, and the defendant’s criminal history.

Stealing a car can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor (“wobbler” offense) in California, depending on the circumstances and the discretion of the prosecutor. If charged as a felony, GTA can result in a state prison sentence of 16 months, two years, or three years. You may also be subject to a fine of up to $10,000.

In contrast, if charged as a misdemeanor, the penalty may include up to 1 year in county jail. The fine for a misdemeanor GTA can be up to $1,000. In some cases, a court may impose probation instead of, or in addition to, jail time. Restitution to the victim is also commonly required.

However, certain factors can increase the severity of the penalties. These include:

  • Prior convictions, especially for auto theft or other serious crimes.
  • The value of the vehicle stolen (extremely high-value cars might lead to more severe charges).
  • If the act involved violence, threats, or firearms, additional charges and penalties might apply.

Because of the range of penalties involved and the potential for substantial jail time, it’s crucial to talk to an experienced attorney if you have been charged with stealing a car in California. At the Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib, we can help. Don’t waste time – schedule your consultation with our car theft attorneys in Redwood City today to learn how we can defend you against these charges.