Theft is one of those crimes where the penalties vary dramatically depending on the value of the item stolen. Naturally, cars tend to be valuable, so stealing a car can result in pretty serious charges. Prosecutors will look at the fair market value of the property or its replacement value to determine charges. In Texas, stealing anything worth $2,500 fair market value or more constitutes a felony. As such, nearly all automobile theft crimes are considered felonies.
Prosecuting Vs. Defending: Automobile Theft
In order to convict someone of auto theft, the prosecution must be able to prove three points:
- The defendant took or drove a vehicle
- The vehicle belonged to someone other than the defendant
- The defendant intended to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle
Depending on the circumstances of the theft, there may be additional charges. For example, if the car is taken from someone by force or threat of force, that is carjacking, which is prosecuted under the state’s robbery law. Robberies are more serious than theft because they involve assault.
Based on the three elements of theft above, we can build a few defenses. One of the primary defenses is to refute point number three above. If the defense can show that the defendant never intended to permanently deprive the owner of the car, the charges can be reduced. Unauthorized use of a vehicle (AKA joyriding) is a misdemeanor crime and, as a result, less serious than auto theft.
Another defense revolves around the owner’s consent for the defendant to drive. If there is consent, no crime has taken place – however, past consent does not establish future consent. This means that you can’t just take someone’s car because that person allowed you to use it in the past.
Know also that under Texas law, if you purchase a car that is transferred to you without a proper title, that is also considered theft. That is because the law assumes that the buyer knows that the vehicle is stolen if no proper title is transferred.