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Grand Theft Auto in California Penal Code 487d1 PC

The California statute that details the offense commonly referred to as “grand theft auto“  is Penal Code 487(d)(1). This section makes it a criminal offense to take someone else’s vehicle worth $950 or more without permission, with the intent to deprive the rightful owner of the vehicle.  Prosecuting attorneys can either charge this offense as a misdemeanor or a felony.

Auto theft in California can lead to charges of grand theft auto under Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC or unlawful taking or driving of a vehicle, otherwise known as “joyriding”, under Vehicle Code 10851 VC. 

The main difference between the offenses is based on how long you intended to keep the vehicle you took.  If you intended to keep the vehicle permanently or for a substantial length of time, you will likely get charged with grand theft auto under Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC. 

On the other hand, if you just intended to take the vehicle for a short spin, chances are you will be charged with joyriding under Vehicle Code 10851 VC.

Penalties Connected to Grand Theft Auto and Joyriding

Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC is a wobbler in the California code. This means that they may both be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstance of your case, and whether you have prior convictions for this or other crimes. 

In practice, GTA under Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC is normally charged as a felony.  It carries a potential penalty of 16 months, 2 years or 3 years behind bars.

On the other hand, joyriding is usually charged as a misdemeanor for first offenses with potential penalties including a fine of up to $5,000, and/or county jail for up to a year.

Legal Defenses to Grand Theft Auto and Joyriding

A highly skilled California theft crimes defense attorney may be able to help you get your vehicle theft charges reduced or dismissed. There are a number of legal defenses that could succeed.  If the defense lawyer can establish that: 

  1. You never intend to steal,
  2. The car was actually yours, or you believed it was,
  3. The individual who owned the car consented to you taking it, and/or
  4. You have been falsely accused.

In this article, our California criminal defense attorneys will show you 5 key things to know about GTA in California:

  1. Grand Theft Auto (Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC): Legal Definition
  2. California “Joyriding” Legal Definition
  3. Penalties for Auto Theft in the California Penal Code
    1. Penalties for a GTA Conviction
    2. Penalties for Joyriding
  4. Legal Defenses to Charges Vehicle Theft and Grand Theft Auto
  5. Offenses Related to Grand Theft Auto and Joyriding
    1. Penal Code 459 PC Burglary, including Auto Burglary
    2. Penal Code 215 PC- the Crime of Carjacking
    3. Penal Code 496 PC – the Crime of Receiving Stolen Property
    4. Penal Code 488 & 490.2 PC – The Petty Theft Offense for Car Theft

After reading this article, if you still have questions, call the knowledgeable attorneys at Spodek Law Group.

1. Grand Theft Auto (Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC): Legal Definition

The legal definition of grand theft auto (or “GTA”) in California includes several “elements”.  These are facts that the prosecutor must be able to demonstrate to get a guilty verdict on this charge.

The elements are:

  1. You took a vehicle owned by someone else;
  2. The vehicle was worth more than $950  (in most cases);
  3. You didn’t have permission from the owner to take the vehicle;
  4. When you took the vehicle, you intended either
    1. to deprive the owner of it permanently, or
    2. to take it away from the owner of it for a period of time long enough that he or she would be deprived of a significant portion of the value or enjoyment of it; and
  5. You moved the vehicle, even a short distance, and kept it for a period of time.

Generally, people think luxury cars are common targets of auto theft.  In reality, one of the most commonly stolen cars in California is the humble Honda Accord because of lucrative market for parts for this car.

2. California “Joyriding” Legal Definition

The legal definition of an “unlawful taking of a vehicle” (aka “joyriding”) is distinct from that of GTA.  The elements of joyriding are:

  1. You took or drove someone else’s car without their consent, and
  2. When you took the vehicle, your intent was to deprive the owner of it for any period of time.

Therefore, the main distinction between California GTA and California Joyriding is the int.  

Another interesting distinction between grand theft auto and joyriding is that you can be convicted of GTA even if you had the owner’s permission to take their car if you got their permission under false pretenses, or through fraud or trickery.   On the other hand, if you had the owner’s permission to take their car, you are not guilty of unlawful taking of a vehicle under Vehicle Code 10851 VC.

3. Penalties for Auto Theft in the California Penal Code

a. Penalties for a GTA Conviction

Grand theft auto under Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC is carries the same penalties as grand theft.  This crime is known as a wobbler in California law.  In theory, the crime can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances and the defendant’s criminal history.

That said, in practice, California prosecutors — such as the offices of the Los Angeles County District Attorney and the Orange County District Attorney — d to charge grand theft auto as a California felony.

The penalties for GTA in California are 16 months, 2 years or 3 years in jail, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.  If the defendant has a prior auto theft conviction, then under Penal Code 666.5 PC, the sentencing range goes up to 2, 3 or 4 years.

a. Penalty enhancements for high-value vehicles

If you should decide to steal a particularly expensive car, you can receive an additional and consecutive prison sentence, as follows:

  1. One additional year if the vehicles was worth more than $65,000, or
  2. Two additional years if the vehicle’s value was higher than $200,000.

b. Penalties for Joyriding

Technically speaking, joyriding is also a wobbler.  Unlike Penal Code 487 GTA, joyriding charges are typically filed as a misdemeanor for first offenders.

If you are charged with a misdemeanor, the maximum penalties are up to 1 year in county jail, and/or a fine of up to $5,000.

In practice, the prosecutor always does have the option of charging this offense as a felony.  If they do so, you may face a sentence of 16 months, 2 years, or  3 years in county jail, and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

If you knew that the vehicle you took was an ambulance, a police vehicle or a disabled placard vehicle, there are stiffer penalties.  The penalties could be worse still if the vehicle was taken while on an emergency call. 

Defendants with Prior Felony Vehicle Theft Convictions

The penalties and sentencing for a joyriding charge are different if you have any of the following on your record:

  • One or more priors for felony joyriding,
  • One or more priors for felony GTA under Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC, or
  • One or more priors for stealing cargo worth more than $950 in violation of Penal Code 487h PC (this is a variation on the California crime of grand theft).

If you have any of these prior convictions, then your unlawful taking of a vehicle charges will necessarily be felony charges. The possible sentences are 2, 3, or  4 years in jail, and/or a maximum fine of   $10,000 fine.

4. Legal Defenses to Charges Vehicle Theft and Grand Theft Auto

With the help of an experienced California criminal defense attorney, you may be able to have your charges reduced or dismissed by using certain common legal defenses.  Some legal defenses that could apply to vehicle theft charges include lack of intent, claim of right, owner’s consent, and false accusations. 

A seasoned criminal defense attorney can help put together the important details and find weaknesses in the prosecution’s evidence to help make sure that justice is done in your of case.

5. Offenses Related to Grand Theft Auto and Joyriding

There are a number of related California crimes that are of charged along with — or instead of — California vehicle theft (either GTA or joyriding). Some of these are:

a. Penal Code 459 PC Burglary, including Auto Burglary

Penal Code 459 PC burglary in California is defined as entering a building or other enclosure with the intent to commit a felony or petty theft once inside.  California auto burglary is the same, except that it involves entering a car, instead of a building, intending to commit a crime.

b. Penal Code 215 PC- the Crime of Carjacking

If you are accused of taking someone’s car from them directly, using either physical force or the fear of physical force to get their car from them, you could be charged with both vehicle theft and Penal Code 215 PC California carjacking.

Carjacking is also considered a violent felony in California law which means that it is a “strike” offense under California’s Three Strikes legislation.  Because of this, it is especially crucial to fight the carjacking charges if you find yourself charged under both California’s carjacking law and one of California’s vehicle/auto theft laws.

c. Penal Code 496 PC – the Crime of Receiving Stolen Property

Penal Code 496 PC, California’s receiving stolen property legislation, makes it a crime to buy, receive, conceal, sell, or withhold property you know to be stolen.

Under California law, you would not be convicted of both receiving stolen property and the actual theft of the property.  That said, the statute in Vehicle Code 10851 VC joyriding presents a different scenario. If you buy or receive a car that you know to be stolen, and then you drive it, you may be charged with both receiving stolen property and California joyriding.

d. Penal Code 488 & 490.2 – The Petty Theft Offense for Car Theft

Since the passage of  Proposition 47 in 2014, if you are accused of stealing a car worth $950 or less, you will be charged with California petty theft instead of grand theft auto.  This is a misdemeanor carrying maximum penalties of 6 months in county jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.


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"Spodek Law Group have offered me excellent support and advice thru a very difficult time. I feel I've dealt with someone who truly cares and wants the best outcome for you and yours. I'm extremely grateful for all the help Spodek Law Group has offered me. I can't recommend them..."

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