Motor Vehicle Theft

I. Introduction

New York State criminalizes separately auto theft, joyriding, and carjacking. Each one of these crimes involves taking a vehicle without the permission of the owner. In addition, the Federal Government may charge you if you transport a vehicle over state lines knowing that it was stolen.

If you were to take and use anyone’s car without their permission there is a chance you may be charged with one of these offenses, for example, if you take someone’s keys to borrow their car against their wishes you may be prosecuted.

These crimes range between a class A misdemeanor and a class B felony, which means you may be facing jail time. Depending on how you took someone’s car and what your intent in taking the car was could make the difference in your case. If you intended to borrow a car it would be a much different charge then if you intended to keep the car. Also if you stole the car in the presence of the owner or through the use of force there could be even greater charges.

Knowing what your rights are and how to best deal with criminal charges under the vehicle theft statutes is why it is so important to have a lawyer that specializes in criminal law with expertise in this field. The intricacy of the law in this field and the varying degrees of each crime could make understanding the case complicated so speaking to an attorney could help you understand the charges and help you through the process.

II. Statutes

Article 155 of the New York Penal Law defines larceny as the taking of another’s property with the intent to deprive them of the property. This means that you steal a vehicle and do not intend to return the vehicle. This also includes if you have the ability to use a car but then the owner decides not to let you use the vehicle if you maintain possession after the owner relinquishes your right you may be charged for larceny.

Article 160 defines robbery as a larceny committed through the threat or use of force. This act is usually called carjacking and involves stealing the car through an act of violence or threat to the owner.

Under article 165 labeled other offenses relating to theft is the unauthorized use of a vehicle is detailed in 165.05, 165.06, and 165.08 as using a vehicle without the consent of the owner or using the vehicle beyond the scope of any agreement. Joyriding as it is commonly called is similar to larceny except for that there is an intention to return the vehicle. A person can also exceed their scope of an agreement when they are given a limited authority to use a vehicle, like when you have a valet park a car.

The unauthorized use aspect of each of these laws is important because if you have the owner of the vehicles consent the use is not unauthorized. There also could be a mistake if you did not intentionally take the car because you thought the car was your own.

The prosecution would have to prove for these crimes that the use was not authorized first, but most times this is shown because the owner is the one reporting the vehicle missing. For the purpose of carjacking and theft the prosecutor would need to show that any unauthorized taking was with the intent to permanently deprive, such as trying to sell the car. Carjacking has the most elements for the prosecutor because they must show that there was a use of force in the presence of the owner or driver during the commission of a theft.

III. Detection and Investigation

Most all cases under these laws begin with a victim reporting that their vehicle is missing. The owners of the vehicles usually call the police and give them any and all information in an attempt to retrieve their vehicle. For instances where authorities feel that there is a string of car thefts they also might operate some kinds of undercover investigations.

After the police find out that there is a missing vehicle they will usually conduct an investigation. During the investigation, if the police target you, they may bring you in for questioning. If the police feel that there is probable cause that you are the one who stole a vehicle they may issue a search warrant. If officers come to your home to look for a stolen vehicle you may deny them access without a search warrant, unless there are exigent circumstances.

It is important to know your rights if you are asked questions you have the right to not incriminate yourself and you have the right to have an attorney present for questioning. Representation from a criminal lawyer with expertise in handling motor vehicle theft is important because it could help you through the investigation and questioning process.

If you are in possession of a vehicle that you do not own it is important to with the assistance of an attorney work on returning the vehicle. When a vehicle is reported stolen and you are in possession of the vehicle there will be an assumption that you stole the vehicle and place you under arrest.

If you are currently under arrest or under investigation for stealing a car an attorney will be able to help you deal with the authorities to try and find what evidence they have on you and to help plan your best defenses to these crimes. You may be charged under multiple statutes such as unauthorized use of a vehicle and grand larceny

IV. Court Actions

When you use someone else’s vehicle without their permission you may have to go to both a criminal and civil trial. The criminal trial will assess your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and impose criminal penalties. A civil trial will assess your guild by a preponderance of evidence and you may have to pay the owner of the car some civil remedy.

In a civil case, the car owner that had their car taken from them may sue you to recover any lost damages. What will happen is the owner will file a complaint that you will need to answer. It is advised if you get a complaint filed against in this type of case to retain a lawyer.

The standard of proof is lower in civil court, and all the owner needs to show is that it was more likely than not that you took their car. They will try to prove this through the discovery process which can include depositions and interrogatories.

While a settlement or a successful case in civil court can’t be used against you in criminal court what you say in the course of the case may be used against you. This is another reason why it is important to have an attorney to represent you in the civil case with the understanding of the implications to your criminal case.

In the criminal case, the burden of proof on the prosecution is much higher because they need to show beyond a reasonable doubt each element of the crime. The prosecutor will generally begin to investigate to try and find if they have enough evidence to meet this burden.

The police will likely try to question you to get either an admission or evidence that they can use against you in the criminal case. During any questioning by the police, you have the right to remain silent to not incriminate yourself and you have the right to have an attorney present, so you may tell them that you want to speak to an attorney before any further questioning.

If prosecutor’s office feels there is enough evidence they will press charges. After charges are brought there will be an evidentiary phase where the prosecutor continues to gather evidence and has to disclose any evidence to the accused. An attorney will be able to help you go through what evidence the prosecutor has and prepare for you the best defense to the crimes you are charged with.

V. Importance of Defense

It is important for anyone of these vehicle crimes to have a strong defense because you may face the possibility of jail time. These crimes vary in severity with a sentence ranging from no jail time to 25 years in jail. It is also important to have a good defense with any other charges related to the taking of a vehicle because if any of these three crimes are committed during the commission of a felony the charges might be more severe.

If you steal a vehicle through the use of force during the commission of another felony or while fleeing from another felony is the most severe crime under these vehicle taking statutes. In addition to the robbery charge, you will probably face charges for whatever felony you committed before stealing the vehicle. The best defenses that can be raised are that you were not committing a felony and that if you did take the car it was not through the use of force in the presence of the owner.

The charge of grand larceny is most likely what you would be charged with if you steal a car without using force. The degree of the grand larceny charge depends on how much money the vehicle is worth;
Grand larceny in the fourth degree -$1,000- $3,000
Grand larceny in the third degree -$3,000- $50,000
Grand larceny in the second degree -$50,000- $1,000,000
Grand larceny in the first degree – over $1,000,000

This determination of the value of the vehicle changes the degree of the felony that you are charged with and will result in different sentencing guidelines. Some defenses that an attorney might raise could be that the valuation of the vehicle was not properly assessed which can lower any potential sentence.

If you are charged with unauthorized use of a vehicle in conjunction with a grand larceny charge it is probably because the prosecutor needs to prove all of the same elements in both cases except larceny there is no intent to return the vehicle. A good defense to lower the charges to unlawful use could be showing intent on your behalf to return the vehicle.

Another good defense to unlawful use could be that you were unaware of your inability to use the car because in the past you have used the car. For example, if you used a relative’s car in the past and were never expressly told you cannot use the car you may be able to argue that there was an implied consent to be able to use the car.

VI. Recent Cases and Their Impact

While the unauthorized use of a vehicle is often a case of someone joyriding, is not the only way people get charged under this statute. In People v. Franov, the court held even though the car was never turned on or moved there was still an unauthorized use of the vehicle because they broke into a car and damaged the car, which obstructed the owner’s use of the vehicle. People v. Franov, 17 N.Y.3d 58, 63, 926 N.Y.S.2d 840, 950 N.E.2d 473 (2011)

Carjacking can be sentenced as a robbery in the first degree if it is in conjunction with other crimes. In 2014 in Brooklyn a defendant was convicted for 75 years for a string of crimes. The defendant shot a man and after fleeing the scene he threatened to shoot a driver and then pistol-whipped the driver while taking his car. After the defendant crashed the first car he went up to a second driver and stole a second car at gunpoint. Using a gun to rob someone of their car is not taken lightly by the prosecutors in NY especially when connected to other crimes.

Grand larceny might also be charged when you keep a car past a lease date.
In People v. Rafferty the court held that the defendant who held the car past the lease date could be charged with grand larceny. People v. Rafferty, 640 N.Y.S.2d 740, 742 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1996) Additionally, the existence of a lease agreement may not be enough evidence to prove you did not steal a car if you fail to make payments or keep the vehicle past the lease date.

VII. Proactive Advice and What to Do if Accused

Using or taking another’s vehicle without their permission could result in a criminal conviction, so the best way to avoid this is to get permission from the owner of the vehicle beforehand. Most vehicles are easily trackable and usually get reported by the owner fairly soon after they are taken.

If you are currently in possession of a vehicle that you do not own you should contact an attorney to discuss how to best handle the return of the vehicle. Often returning a vehicle in the same condition will result in no charges against you but having an attorney can help to work with the authorities and the owner to avoid criminal charges.

When you find out that you are under investigation or if you are accused of any one of these crimes your first step should be contacting an attorney. The police will likely try to elicit a confession or incriminating statements from you, so having an attorney for questioning could make a big difference in your case. An attorney will also be able to help you plan your best defense and handle working with the police, prosecutor, and the owner of the vehicle.

VIII. Call to Action

If you are under investigation for taking a vehicle it is important to contact an attorney. Having an attorney that understands the intricacies of the law will help you plan the right course of action for you.

It is important during an investigation to have an attorney work with you to communicate with the police, find out what evidence they have. If you are under investigation it is important to speak to an attorney so they can help plan next steps and for them to be present during questioning to help you through the investigation process.

An attorney that specializes in criminal law can make the difference in your vehicle theft case. They may be able to help defend you in court, reduce the sentence, or even get the charges dropped entirely.

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