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Grand Theft Auto – What is The Legal Definition?

March 21, 2024 Uncategorized

Grand Theft Auto – What is The Legal Definition?

When you hear the term “grand theft auto,” you probably think of the popular video game series by the same name. But grand theft auto is also a real crime that people can be charged with. So what exactly constitutes grand theft auto from a legal perspective? Let’s break it down.

First off, grand theft auto involves stealing someone else’s vehicle without their permission. The key is that the perpetrator intends to either permanently deprive the owner of their vehicle, or deprive them of it long enough that the owner loses a significant portion of the value or enjoyment of the car. Essentially, the thief isn’t planning on just “borrowing” the car for a quick joyride before returning it. They mean to make off with the vehicle entirely.

Grand theft auto is considered a more serious offense than regular auto theft or joyriding. That’s because vehicles tend to be valuable items – often worth thousands of dollars. So when someone steals a car, it’s considered a “grand” theft rather than a petty one. Many states set a minimum dollar value that stolen property must exceed in order to qualify as grand theft. For vehicles, that threshold is usually around $500-$1000.

The crime can also be called “larceny of a motor vehicle” or “felony vehicle theft.” But “grand theft auto” is the most common term used. Where did this distinctive name come from? Well, back in the early 20th century, “grand larceny” was a popular phrase referring to thefts of high-value items. And as automobiles grew in prevalence and value, “grand larceny auto” emerged as a shorthand for stealing them. Over time, the term morphed into the snappier sounding “grand theft auto” that we know today.

The basic legal definition of grand theft auto involves: (1) taking someone else’s vehicle, (2) without the owner’s permission, (3) with the intent to permanently or significantly deprive them of the vehicle. But there are some variations in how states interpret and punish this crime.

State Differences

Most states classify grand theft auto as a felony offense. Exactly what type of felony though – ranging from third degree up to first degree – depends on the value of the stolen vehicle and other factors. The potential prison sentences for grand theft auto also vary widely between states. For instance:

  • In California, grand theft auto can be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor. As a felony, it carries 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in prison depending on the circumstances.
  • Florida punishes grand theft auto as a second or first degree felony with up to 5 or 30 years imprisonment respectively.
  • In New York, third degree grand larceny auto brings up to 7 years in prison, while first degree boosts the max to 25 years.
  • Texas sets the punishment for state jail felony grand theft auto at 180 days to 2 years in state jail.

The monetary thresholds for grand theft also range from $500 to $5000 across different states. In California for example, stealing a vehicle worth $950 or less would get charged as petty theft rather than grand theft.

Some states like Alabama and South Carolina don’t have a separate grand theft auto statute. But they punish stealing vehicles worth over a certain amount as felony grand larceny. The elements of the crime are similar.

Overall, while the definitions are generally comparable, the specific grand theft auto laws and penalties can vary significantly between states. It’s important to check the statutes in your particular jurisdiction.

Vs. Joyriding

A common question is: what’s the difference between grand theft auto and joyriding? Joyriding, also known as unauthorized use of a vehicle, occurs when someone temporarily takes or “borrows” someone else’s car without permission. Often it’s done on a whim by teenagers looking for a thrill ride. But joyriders don’t intend to permanently keep the car – they just want to drive it around for a while before ditching it.

With grand theft auto, the intent is to permanently deprive the rightful owner of their vehicle. Joyriding is usually treated as a misdemeanor, while grand theft auto is a more serious felony. The potential sentences for the two offenses are very different. In California for example, joyriding is punishable by up to 1 year in county jail. Whereas grand theft auto carries up to 3 years in state prison. The distinction between temporary deprivation and permanent deprivation is key.

Vs. Carjacking

Another question is: what’s the difference between grand theft auto and carjacking? Carjacking is when a perpetrator uses force or violence to steal a vehicle from its driver – such as demanding the driver get out at gunpoint. It’s essentially a combination of auto theft and robbery. Grand theft auto on the other hand involves taking an unattended vehicle without force.

Carjacking is considered an even more serious violent crime than grand theft auto in most states. Federal carjacking statutes provide enhanced penalties of up to 15 years in prison if serious bodily injury or death occurs. Some states have also adopted “anti-carjacking” laws imposing strict sentences for these violent vehicle thefts.

So in summary:

  • Grand theft auto involves stealthily stealing an unattended vehicle with the intent for permanent deprivation.
  • Carjacking utilizes violence/force to steal an occupied vehicle from its driver.

The circumstances and method of the vehicle theft determine whether it’s classified as grand theft auto vs. carjacking.


What are some potential legal defenses if you’ve been accused of grand theft auto? Here are a few common ones:

  • Lack of criminal intent – If you took someone’s vehicle but didn’t intend to permanently keep it, you may be able to argue that you only committed temporary joyriding, not grand theft auto. The prosecution has to prove felonious intent.
  • Believed you had permission

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