The National Insurance Crime Bureau reports that more than one million cars are stolen in America each year, making auto theft one of the most common crimes. Several federal acts passed in the last few decades have strengthened the laws surrounding auto theft and the penalties for a conviction can be as severe as life in prison.
Here's what you should know about auto theft and the law.
General state laws and vehicle theft
While some states view auto theft using general theft statutes, a few, including the state of California, have statutes that are specifically titled Vehicle Theft to address this crime.
The classification of auto theft varies depending on the value of the vehicle that was stolen. In general, theft of an inexpensive vehicle under $1,500 is classified as a misdemeanor and punishable by up to 1 year in jail. For very expensive autos, such as collector vehicles, the classification may be first-degree felony offense, which carries prison sentences of 5 to 99 years, if convicted.
Penalty enhancements in vehicle theft
While there are general guidelines, auto theft sentencing is usually affected by several factors. Most state laws have provisions allowing prosecutors to increase punishments or penalties for certain types of vehicle theft. In California, for example, stealing a police car enhances the charges from a misdemeanor to a felony level offense.
Another factor the courts consider is the criminal history of the person charged with auto theft. Nearly every state law, including California, has provisions to enhance punishments for repeat offenders. For example, car theft that would be a misdemeanor for a first-time offender is elevated to a felony for those who have been previously convicted of car theft.
Penalties for carjacking
Carjacking, which involves stealing an occupied vehicle by force, was made a federal offense with the Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992. As such, a person convicted of carjacking may face up to 15 years in prison, with a maximum sentence of up to 25 years, life in prison, or even the death penalty if a victim was injured or killed as a result of the auto theft.
What to do if you're charged with auto theft
If you are arrested and charged with any level of car theft, it is essential that you speak with an experienced attorney as soon as possible.
People charged with car theft typically have opportunities to work through the charge. With the help of an experienced defense lawyer, prosecutors will often agree to drop penalty enhancements or file a lesser charge if the defendant agrees to enroll in community service programs, pay restitution, or otherwise take affirmative steps to address the damage done to a victim.
Vitaly Sigal, a Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer, delivers aggressive defense representation for people who have been charged with auto theft and other crimes. To discuss the details of your case with Mr. Sigal, contact our office today.