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California Auto Theft Laws

Last updated 11/14/2019

Californians love their cars, and you can see some of the most expensive and exotic cars on the roads in the Golden State. Those who succumb to the temptation to just grab their dream car and make off with it will shortly see their California dreamin' turn into a nightmare. California auto theft laws punish car theft severely.

Wobbler Crimes

California auto theft laws are drafted such that it may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Crimes of this kind are sometimes referred to as "wobblers." The severity of the charge depends on the circumstances of the offense and the offender's criminal history. However, practically speaking, nearly all cases of auto theft result in felony charges. Penalties may be significantly enhanced if the car was a particularly expensive model. Most auto thefts are punishable with 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in prison; a fine of up to $10,000; or both.

California Auto Theft Overview

The following is an overview of California auto theft laws:

Statutes California Penal Code, Part 1, Title 13, Of Crimes Against Property, Chapter 5, Larceny Theft, Section 487
Elements of the Crime

California auto theft laws penalize the taking of a car where:

  • You took a car owned by someone else;
  • The car was worth more than $950;
  • You didn't have permission;
  • You moved the car and kept it for a period of time intending to deprive the owner of the value and enjoyment of the vehicle.

The taking of the vehicle may be accomplished through a purely mechanical means or by using false pretenses or trickery.


Joyriding is a separate crime distinguished from auto theft. Joyriding involves taking another's vehicle without their consent for any period of time. It is distinguished from theft by:

  • The lack of intent to steal the vehicle permanently;
  • The lack of permission. Although the law provides that a theft by trick can occur, taking a car for a joyride using deceit is not a crime.

Joyriding is another wobbler offense, but unlike auto theft it is generally prosecuted as a misdemeanor.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

Related Resources

If you want to learn more about California auto theft laws and other crimes the links below provide helpful information:

Don't Face Your Auto Theft Charges Alone: Contact a Defense Attorney Today

Since the distinction between felony auto theft and misdemeanor joyriding depends on the offender's intentions your statements and actions relating to an auto theft charge can be particularly important. Hiring a lawyer to assist with your defense can help ensure you don't miss this, and other opportunities, to have your charges reduced or even get the case dismissed. Contact a qualified California defense attorney and get clarity about your legal defense options.

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