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Penal Code 215 PC California Carjacking Laws

By Spodek Law Group | July 8, 2021

Under Penal Code 215 PC, California law defines criminal carjacking as taking a motor vehicle from someone by means of fear or force. The offense is considered a felony that is punishable by up to 9 years in state prison. Additional time is added if a weapon is used in the commission of the crime. 

The use of fear or force means to inflict physical force or inflict imminent physical harm on the alleged victim.

Whether the person in the car is the driver or a passenger or whether or not they own the car; if you use force or fear to take control of that car, you may be convicted of the charge. 

Penalties   you could face on conviction

The act of carjacking is a felony, subjecting you to up to 9 years in the California state prison.

Additional time may be added if you: 

  1. Injure the victim
  2. Use a weapon
  3. Commit the offense on behalf of a gang, or
  4. Kidnap someone during the carjacking. 

In addition, carjacking is considered a “strike” under California’s three strikes law, which means that you must serve at least 85% of your sentence before being eligible for parole.

The Best Legal Defenses

There are a few legal defenses that apply to carjacking, the most common of which include:

  1. you are a victim to mistaken identity, or
  2. you refrained from using “force or fear”. 

Related offenses

Oftentimes carjacking is committed in connection with other crimes.

Some of the more common crimes include (but are not limited to):

  • robbery,
  • grand theft auto “GTA” or joyriding,
  • auto burglary,
  • kidnapping,
  • battery, and/or
  • assault with a deadly weapon. 

In this article, the California criminal defense attorneys at Spodek Law Group will provide you with a comprehensive guide to understanding California’s carjacking law by answering the following questions: 

  • 1. How does California law define the crime of carjacking?
  • 2. What are the best legal defenses to carjacking?
  • 3. What is the sentencing under 215 PC?
  • 4. Are there other crimes that tend to get charged together with carjacking?

1. How does California law define the crime of carjacking?

California Penal Code 215 PC states, in pertinent part,

“Carjacking is the felonious taking of a motor vehicle in the possession of another, from his or her person or immediate presence, or from the person or immediate presence of a passenger of the motor vehicle, against his or her will and with the intent to either permanently or temporarily deprive the person in possession of the motor vehicle of his or her possession, accomplished by means of force or fear.”

In simple terms, carjacking is:

  • the theft of a vehicle from someone’s immediate possession
  • accomplished by force or fear.

In order to convict you of carjacking, the prosecutor must provide proof the following facts (referred to as “elements” of the offense):

  1. a person had possession of a vehicle,
  2. you took thevehicle from his/her immediate presence (or from the passenger’s immediate presence),
  3. against his/her will, by force or fear, and
  4. with the intent to deprive that person of that vehicle either permanently or temporarily.

Let’s have a closer look at some of these terms and phrases to gain a deeper understanding of their legal definitions.

Possession and immediate presence

When we think of the word “carjacking”, we usually envision a person, armed with a weapon, forcing the driver out of a car. The criminal would then getin the car and drive off.

With this example, the car was clearly under the driver’s possession and within his immediate presence. “Immediate presence” implies that the car is within the alleged victim’s reach, observation or control, so that he/she could retain possession of the car if he/she weren’t overcome by force or fear.

This definition expands the scope of California’s carjacking law beyond scenarios where the victim is driving the car, or merely inside of it.

You took the car against his/her will

When you “take” a car from another person, it means that you (1) take possession of the car, and (2) move the car, even if only a short distance. If for whatever reason you are unable to move the car, you can still be convicted of attempted carjacking, as long as the prosecutor can provide proof for the remaining elements of the offense.

“Against his/her will” means to not havethe victim’s consent.A person “consents” to something when he/she does so freely and voluntarily, not under the influence of force or fear. It requires free will and positive cooperation.

Unless the alleged victim willingly handed over his/her car, this element is easily satisfied.

 Force or fear

For purpose of Penal Code 215 PC California’s carjacking law, the terms “force” and “fear” fundamentally mean the same thing. Courts have stated that “the coercive effect of fear induced by threats is in itself a form of force”.

“Fear” refers to a fear of harm to one’s person, property or family that are present at the scene of the incident.

“The element of fear is satisfied when there is sufficient fear to cause the victim to comply with the unlawful demand for his/her property.”This suggests that, as long as you use enough force or fear to overcome the victim’s resistance, the element is satisfied. A victim’s attempts at resistance do not disprove or invalidate the claim that you used force or fear.

Additionally, the victim doesn’t even need to be consciously aware that you were using force or fear to take possession of his/her car. For example: you could still be convicted of carjacking if there were an infant or an unconscious person in the car.

 The intent to deprive

In general, California theft offenses requires the intention of depriving the owner of the stolen property for good. But California’s carjacking law requires the intention to deprive the owner/passenger of his/her car either permanently or temporarily.

It is irrelevant whether you “carjack” someone’s car in order to take possession of it, sell it or to “borrow” it for a short period, any taking will suffice.

2. What are the best legal defenses to carjacking?

Fortunately, there are legal defenses to carjacking that your California criminal defense attorney could offer on your behalf. Common examples include (but are not limited to):

You didn’t use force or fear

If you didn’t use force or fear to possess the car, you aren’t guilty of violating Penal Code 215 PC California’s carjacking law.

Let’s say, for example, that you were admiring someone’s car at a gas station. You saw that the keys were in the car so you got in and drove away, leaving the owner standing outside. Under these facts, you are not considered guilty of carjacking. You did not resort to using force or fear to possess the car, you simply took it. You would, however, be found guilty of a less serious offense of grand theft auto or joyriding, both of which are discussed below in Section 4. The Crimes that are Related to Carjacking).


If you had consent to take another person’s vehicle, there is no evidence of carjacking. By definition, a carjacking only happens when the taking is “against the driver’s or passenger’s will”.

Let’s say, for example, that someone allows you to borrow his/her car. For whatever reason, you fail to return it on the agreed upon time. He/she then accuses you of carjacking.

Given these facts, you would not be found guilty of carjacking, since you initially had permission to take the vehicle. Similar to a “no force or fear” defense, this type of scenario doesn’t meet the criteria for a carjacking. But again, you may be guilty to a less serious offense such as grand theft auto or joyriding, both of which are discussed below in Section 4. The Crimes that are Related to Carjacking).

Mistaken identity

Mistaken identification is the number one cause of wrongful convictions in the United States.

Carjacking is a startling and stressful event, a factor which reduces peoples’ ability to correctly remember and identify the perpetrator. Therefore many carjacking suspects are misidentified and wrongly accused. If you were arrested merely because you matched physical appearance of the actual offender, we can help!

“Claim of right” is not a defense

It is important to understand that even if you are the rightful owner of the car, you are not allowed to use force or fear in order to regain it from someone else in possession of the car. This is because California criminal law considers carjacking a crime against possession, not ownership.

3. What is the sentencing and sentencing enhancements under 215 PC?

Penal Code 215 PC is a felony, punishable by:

  • probation and up to an entire year of county jail, or
  • three, five or nine years in the California state prison and a maximum of $10,000 in fines.
  • You face this punishment for every victim that is present in the car at the time of the carjacking.

In addition to these penalties, there are other sentencing enhancements that are applicable to carjacking. These sentencing enhancements do exactly that, enhance or increase your sentence under certain circumstances. Below are some examples of this:

Great bodily injury

If, during your carjacking, you cause another person to suffer a significant bodily injury (that is, a substantial physical injury), California Penal Code 12022.7 PC California’s great bodily injury enhancement imposes a three to six-year prison sentence in addition and consecutive to the penalty you receive for your carjacking conviction.

Penal Code 186.22 PC California’s criminal street gang enhancement

If the prosecutor is able to prove that you carjacked “for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with any criminal street gang”, California’s gang enhancement kicks in.

A conviction under Penal Code 186.22 PC California’s criminal street gang enhancement automatically inflicts a fifteen-year-to-life prison sentence in addition and consecutive to your Penal Code 215 PC penalties.

Penal Code 12022.53 PC California’s “10-20-life ‘use a gun and you’re done’” law

Penal Code 12022.53 PC California’s “10-20-life ‘use a gun and you’re done’” law subjects you to 10 years in prison for “using” a gun, 20 years for firing a gun, and 25-years-to-life for killing or severely injuring another person with a gun. And, as is the case with all of the above conditions, this is in addition and consecutive to the sentence you receive for the underlying carjacking conviction.

California’s three strikes law

Carjacking is considered a “violent felony”. This means that in addition to the above penalties, a Penal Code 215 PC conviction will result in a “strike” on your criminal record in keeping with California’s three strike’s law. It also means that you must serve at least 85% of your sentence before you will being eligible for parole.

If you are subsequently charged with any felony and have a prior “strike” on your record, you will be treated as a “second striker,” and your sentence will be double otherwise required by law.

If you’re charged with a third felony, and you already have two prior strike convictions, you will be treated as a “third striker” and will serve a compulsory minimum sentence of 25 years-to-life in California state prison.

3.5. California’s felony-murder rule

If, during the commission of a carjacking, you or an accomplice accidentally or unintentionally kill another person, California’s felony-murder rule automatically finds you responsible for first-degree murder.This is the case even when the victim isn’t murdered in furtherance of the carjacking, as long as the death is logically related to the crime.

This could be the case if, for example, the victim suffered a heart attack due to the stress of the event.

3.6. Immigration / removal

Because carjacking is considered an “aggravated felony”, a Penal Code 215 PC carjacking conviction could potentially lead to your deportation or removal if you are a legal immigrant or alien.

4. Are there other crimes that can be charged in connection with carjacking?

Dependant on the circumstances surrounding the offense, there are a few crimes that prosecutors may charge in addition to or in lieu of carjacking. The following are some of the most common:

  • Penal Code 211 PC robbery
  • Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC Grand theft auto “GTA”
  • Joyriding / auto theft
  • Auto burglary
  • Kidnapping during a carjack
  • Penal Code 242 PC California’s assault & battery law

If you or your loved one is charged with Penal Code 215 PC carjacking and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Spodek Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or telephonically. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout the Golden State.

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