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What Is Grand Theft Auto?
(5 Types and Legal Defenses Explained)

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C.L. Mike Schmidt Published by C.L. Mike Schmidt
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Grand theft auto, more commonly known as “GTA,” is much bigger than a video game. It’s the unlawful appropriation of someone else’s automobile without the intention to return it.

This criminal act has become widely popular in recent years due to its prevalence in many media and entertainment, including movies, television shows, and gaming platforms.

With over a decade of legal experience, I have encountered various Grand Theft Auto cases. This article will give you insight into GTA and help you understand how to protect yourself against it.

Quick Summary

  • If convicted of grand theft auto, the severity of penalties differs according to regional regulations and previous crimes.
  • Depending on the jurisdiction, varying monetary amounts exist to distinguish between petty and grand theft.
  • When an individual takes an unoccupied car without permission, it is classified as straightforward theft.

What Is Grand Theft Auto?

A person committing grand theft auto

Grand theft auto, or motor vehicle theft as some states refer, is a serious crime involving the unlawful taking of someone else’s automobile without the owner’s permission [1].

In some states, GTA is called:

  • larceny of a vehicle
  • felony theft
  • first-degree theft
  • auto theft
  • car theft
  • Motor vehicle theft.

In California, grand theft auto is illegal according to Penal Code 487(d)(1).

Specifically, this crime consists of the following:

  1. The defendant illegally seized a vehicle belonging to another person.
  2. The stolen vehicle had a value of over $950.
  3. The defendant acted without the car owner’s consent or knowledge, thus unlawfully taking possession of their vehicle.
  4. Even if the defendant only moved it for a short distance and kept it briefly, they still removed the car from its original position.
  5. The accused sought to either permanently deprive the car’s owner of their possession or take it for an extended amount of time, thus significantly diminishing its value and utility.

Why Is It Called Grand Theft?

A robber committing grand theft auto

It is called grand theft because stolen items such as automobiles can fall into two distinct types of theft offenses, which are acknowledged by criminal law, making it a serious offense.

These two thefts are:

  • Petty theft, which typically involves items of lesser value.
  • Grand theft is the unlawful taking of more valuable items.

Depending on the state, different threshold amounts exist to differentiate between petty and grand theft. In California, that amount is $950 – any crime entailing stolen items worth less than this would be deemed as ‘petty theft.’

Types of Grand Theft Auto

A car robber committing grand theft auto

Generally, automobile theft can occur in two distinct and separate ways: 

  • When a person steals a vehicle while it is occupied by removing the driver by force and taking the car without authorization, it might include additional charges if weapons were used or the driver was hurt during the crime.
  • The second way is when a person steals an unoccupied car. Grand theft auto requires more than just breaking into an unoccupied car; it also requires starting and taking the vehicle without consent.

In California, grand theft auto is usually considered a “wobbler,” meaning it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony [2].

If a defendant is charged with auto theft for the first time, and it’s pursued as a felony, they could be up against:

  • Serving 16 months in a county jail or up to three years in state prison.
  • Paying up to $10,000 in fines.

A lawyer looking for defenses for grand theft auto

The possible legal defenses available to someone facing a grand theft auto charge are based on each case.

Criminal defense lawyers can present various legal defenses to combat the accusation if charged with Grand Theft Auto.

These frequently used tools include:

  1. The defendant had no intention of stealing the vehicle.
  2. With genuine conviction, the defendant believed that the car was theirs.
  3. The owner’s lack of property was not severe enough to be considered grand theft auto.
  4. With the vehicle’s owner granting permission, it was clear that the defendant had been authorized to take possession of the car.
  5. The owner has deliberately made false claims implying that the defendant had stolen their car.

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How Is Grand Theft Auto Different From Joyriding?

Grand theft auto is different from joyriding because joyriding is the unauthorized use of a vehicle for a short period and then returning it. Grand theft auto, on the other hand, involves taking a car or motor vehicle without permission to deprive its owner of it permanently.

Is Grand Theft Auto Different From Carjacking?

Yes, grand theft auto is different from carjacking. Carjacking involves taking a vehicle its owner or operator uses by force or fear. Grand theft auto only requires that the offender takes possession of the vehicle without permission, regardless of whether its occupant was present during the commission of the crime or not.

What Is the Difference Between Auto Theft and Grand Theft Auto?

The difference between auto theft and grand theft auto is that auto theft requires the offender to take possession of a vehicle without permission. In contrast, grand theft auto involves taking a car or motor vehicle to deprive its owner permanently.

How Long Is GTA Jail Time?

GTA jail time depends on whether you were charged with a misdemeanor or felony. For a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty is one year in county jail. However, if found guilty of a felony, up to three years imprisonment may be imposed.

Are You Facing Grand Theft Auto Charges?

Don’t let a conviction for grand theft auto drag you down. Hiring an experienced lawyer to fight your charges may cost less than accepting a guilty plea without contesting, so don’t hesitate and call a criminal defense attorney at Schmidt & Clark, LLP for a free case evaluation. 

Our experienced attorneys have the knowledge and resources to help you understand your legal options and protect your rights.



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