Theft offenses involving motor vehicles are serious crimes that can have very significant negative consequences, including a felony or misdemeanor conviction, a substantial term in county jail or state prison, a strike under California’s Three Strikes Law, deportation or other loss of immigration benefits, and other negative effects.

I’ve successfully defended many clients against these types of crimes in San Diego and the surrounding counties. Below is what you need to know about the charges, the consequences of conviction, and the defense strategies that may be available to you. If you have any questions after reading this, contact mefor a free consultation where we’ll go over your case and discuss your legal options.

Grand Theft Auto and Joyriding

What the Law Says

Grand theft auto (GTA) under Penal Code Section 487 and joyriding under Vehicle Code Section 10851 are similar but distinct. Grand theft auto is the more serious criminal offense, with the principal distinction being whether the accused intends to deprive the owner of the vehicle permanently or only temporarily. GTA involves the specific intent to permanently deprive someone of his or her car (i.e., to steal the car). By contrast, a person may be convicted of joyriding even if he or she only has the intent to deprive the owner of possession of a vehicle for a short period of time.

If you break into a vehicle to take it temporarily or permanently, you may also be charged with auto burglary under Penal Code Section 459.

Another significant distinction between a charge of grand theft auto and joyriding is that while both are “wobblers” in San Diego (i.e., they can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies), prosecutors here will typically charge grand theft auto as a felony and joyriding as a misdemeanor.

Consequences of Conviction

If you’re convicted of a misdemeanor involving theft of a vehicle, you may face a maximum term of 1 year in county jail. With a first conviction of a felony for either of these criminal offenses in San Diego, you may be sentenced to a term in county jail or state prison from 16 months to 4 years and a maximum fine of $10,000 plus other court-imposed fees. The penalties can be even more severe if the value of the vehicle exceeds certain monetary thresholds.

Defense Strategies

A number of defenses can be effective against these charges. For example, I may challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, attack witness credibility or reliability, or seek to have evidence that was unlawfully obtained suppressed.

Additionally, I successfully employ a number of defenses specifically for car theft crimes, including:

No Specific Intent to Deprive

Because these are specific intent crimes, the prosecutor must prove that you intended to deprive the owner of the vehicle in order to obtain a conviction. However, I may be able to successfully get a GTA charge reduced to joyriding by challenging evidence of intent to permanently deprive the complaining witness of the vehicle.

Permission or Consent

If you take the vehicle with the owner’s consent, this does not constitute a criminal offense either, which can be an effective defense in these types of cases.


What the Law Says

Carjacking under Penal Code Section 215 is a more serious offense that requires taking a vehicle from the person in possession by force or fear while the vehicle is in the possessor’s immediate presence. It does not matter whether he or she is the passenger or driver. Specifically, carjacking involves taking possession of a vehicle from a vehicle occupant’s person or immediate presence against the occupant’s will with the specific intent to permanently deprive the occupant of the vehicle when fear or force is employed.

An important misconception about carjacking is that it requires someone to be physically inside the vehicle. All that is required under the law is that the vehicle be within the reach, observation or control of an occupant, so a passenger who is simply in close proximity to a vehicle may be considered a carjacking victim.

If you take possession of the vehicle and move it without the consent or cooperation of the person in possession of the vehicle, it doesn’t matter that the car wasn’t driven a substantial distance. If for some reason you’re unable to get the vehicle to move, for example because it is disabled by a security system, this may still constitute attempted carjacking.

The requirement of force or fear is usually easily demonstrated. Threats against the safety of a person or his or her family or property that result in the victim surrendering possession are sufficient. As with grand theft auto, you must have a specific intent to permanently deprive the alleged victim.

Consequences of Conviction

A conviction for carjacking is a very serious criminal offense that carries significant penalties, including a maximum term in county jail or state prison of 9 years. Depending on the specific circumstances of your case, you may be charged with other related offenses or be subject to certain penalty enhancements that can substantially increase your term of state prison incarceration.

Defense Strategies

A number of defenses can be successful against carjacking charges. For example, I will examine the possibility of police misconduct, violation of your constitutional rights or a lack of sufficient evidence to support the charge. Additionally, I may employ a number of carjacking-specific defenses, including:

  • Vehicle Not Taken Against the Will of Possessor: Depending on the specific circumstances of your case, it may be effective to argue that you didn’t take the vehicle against the possessor’s will. If you had consent to take the vehicle, you may not be convicted of carjacking.
  • No Use of Force or Fear: If you come across a car that is running with no one inside or in the immediate vicinity, you may not be convicted of carjacking for taking the vehicle. However, you may be charged with the lesser offense of grand theft auto.
  • Legitimate Right of Ownership: You cannot be convicted of carjacking if you’re the true owner of the vehicle.
  • Lack of Intent: The offense of carjacking is a specific intent offense so you may not be convicted unless you intended to permanently deprive the possessor of the vehicle.
  • Vehicle Not Taken from Immediate Presence: If there’s no driver or passenger within close observation or control of the vehicle, this is a valid defense to carjacking.

I diligently seek dismissal or acquittal of any car theft charges my clients face. If the evidence or facts of your case do not make this feasible, I aggressively negotiate with the prosecutor to potentially obtain a reduction of the charges or more lenient sentencing. I fight fiercely to avoid the most serious consequences of a felony conviction.

If you’re charged with grand theft auto, carjacking, joyriding or any other car theft-related offense in San Diego or anywhere throughout Southern California, don’t discuss the situation with police or prosecutors until you’ve talk to a criminal defense attorney with experience in this area.

I’ve successfully defended many people in San Diego and the surrounding counties against serious car theft offenses. If you have any questions or would like to understand the legal options available to you in your case, I invite you to get in touch for a free consultation.