Grand Theft Auto, Carjacking, Joy Rides, and Car Theft Rings: Felony or Misdemeanor in Texas
Several months ago, the Dallas Police Department released a list of the most popular motor vehicles to be stolen in Texas. Apparently, the following ten models of cars and trucks are most likely to be taken by thieves:
- Ford Pick Up
- Chevrolet Pick Up
- Dodge Pick Up
- Chevrolet Tahoe
- Honda Civic
- Honda Accord
- GMC Pick Up
- Toyota Camry
- Ford Taurus
- Chevrolet Impala.
Thing is, there’s more than one way to steal a car (or pickup or SUV) here in Texas and there’s not just one size fits all for car theft. Sometimes, you can be charged with a misdemeanor here in Dallas or Fort Worth if the police catch you with someone else’s wheels.
In other circumstances, you may be facing serious felony charges under state or federal law. Felony convictions mean some serious time behind bars. Law enforcement here is pretty serious about auto theft.
There’s the North Texas Auto Theft Task Force, for one thing. These are Dallas County Sheriff’s Department detectives who spend their days investigating “… auto theft and their related crimes in Texas.” The Dallas Police Department has its own Auto Theft Unit. Over in Fort Worth, the Police Department has a Commercial Auto Theft Unit. And these are just at the local level – state and federal authorities are also interesting in arresting on car theft charges.
You get the idea. It’s a big deal. So, what are auto theft crimes under state and federal law? And if arrested, what possible sentence could you face?
Grand Theft Auto: Arrested for Stealing a Motor Vehicle
Federal law considers taking any motor vehicle (or any other property) valued over $250 as a felony offense. It’s also “grand larceny” if it involves taking that vehicle to another location with the intent to steal it. That’s a bigger deal.
Federal Auto Theft Charges
Under federal law, grand theft auto (i.e., grand larceny) can get you a felony arrest and possible conviction for one year to 90 months in a federal facility. If the value of the stolen property exceeds $5000, then “points” are added to the case and “aggravating factors” can push that 90 months up to 20 years behind bars. See the United States Attorney General Manual Section 9-61.010 et seq.
From the federal perspective, going after auto theft charges only makes sense for their agencies if it’s tied up with other illegal activities, like organized crime operations run by gangs or drug cartels. These are usually sophisticated “car rings” that operate in auto theft on a large (and profitable) scale.
Gangs and Drug Cartels
As an example, earlier this year members of two gangs, Yung Money and Yung Gunz Blood, were indicted for an organized auto theft ring that exceeded $1Million in rental car thefts in Texas, Tennessee, Arizona, Florida, California, and Nevada. See, “Houston-Based Gang Members Charged For Roles In Multi-State Car-Theft Ring,” written by James Brock and published by Patch.com on June 22, 2017.
Another example: members of the Zetas Drug Cartel were indicted down in Laredo as part of “Operation Metal Rain,” a joint effort by the federal authorities and Laredo Police Department back in March 2017. Here, stolen vehicles were being moved from Texas down to Laredo and then into Mexico where the Zetas could then use the cars, trucks, and SUVs for their various cartel operations, including gun smuggling and drug trafficking.
Texas Auto Theft Charges
State law here in Texas isn’t as simple regarding auto theft. There’s no specific “auto theft statute” in the Texas Penal Code. If someone is arrested by police for auto theft under state law, then the prosecutor has to choose which Texas statutes are going to be the basis of the indictment.
Factors that will impact that decision include: (1) the market value of the vehicle; (2) the age and past criminal history of the accused; (3) if a weapon was involved; and (4) if anyone was hurt or any property was destroyed.
Texas Penal Code Section 31.03
The DA’s first option is the general theft law, Texas Penal Code Section 31.03. Here, the accused can be charged with auto theft if they have taken the motor vehicle with the intent to deprive its owner of the property.
Under the statute, it’s auto theft if you (1) flat out take the vehicle without the owner’s consent; or if you (2) knew it was a stolen car (truck, etc.) when you took it.
When would that happen? Here, if someone buys a used car off of Craigslist without proper auto title transfer and registration may be vulnerable to arrest under this state theft law. Prosecutors will argue that the buyer is presumed to know that they were buying stolen property because of the lack of title.
Texas Penal Code Section 31.07
The prosecutor may decide to charge on an alternative statute, Texas Penal Code Section 31.07. Under this law, it’s illegal to use someone’s property without their approval.
The accused faces charges for “unauthorized use of a vehicle.” And this law doesn’t apply just to cars or pickups; it can also be used for using things like a boat or a motorcycle or ATV without permission and consent.
Usually, you see prosecutors using this statute to prosecute joyriding. Key here is the intent of the accused to return the vehicle to the owner. Sometimes, joyriding charges can be kept at the misdemeanor level, particularly if the accused is a minor and facing their first arrest.
Felony or Misdemeanor under Texas Law
Misdemeanor charges usually accompany Texas auto theft charges for a motor vehicle valued at $500 or less. Class B misdemeanors here can mean a maximum fine of $2000 and six months in the county jail.
If the motor vehicle is valued at a minimum of $20,000, then things get more serious. Now, the accused may face a third (3d) degree felony charge. That comes with a maximum fine of $10,000 and up to 10 years in a state prison.
Joyriding gets special treatment, it’s considered a “state jail felony.” Sentences here can mean up to $10,000 in fines and six months behind bars in a state jail facility.
For more on felonies, state jail felonies, and sentencing under state law, see: Will You Go to State Jail or Texas Prison? The Importance of Plea Negotiations.
Defenses to Auto Theft Charges
There are the usual challenges to be asserted here, like flaws in the prosecution’s evidence for instance. Does the prosecutor really have authentic, admissible evidence of every element of their case? If not, then a Motion to Suppress can be filed.
Additionally, there are arguments against the primary elements of any auto theft case, i.e., intent and consent.
Before there can be a conviction can be had, the prosecution has to prove up both the intent to steal the property and the absence of consent on the part of its owner. If there is evidence that the individual lacked the intent to steal the car, then that is a defense to the charges. Similarly, if there is evidence that there was consent from the owner for the accused to take the vehicle, then a valid defense exists.
For instance, did the mother imply consent for the teenager to use her car when she told him to pick up some groceries at the store? Then maybe the teen is not guilty of the joyriding charge.
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