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Grand Theft Auto (GTA) Laws & Defense

VC 10851(a) Unauthorized Use of Vehicle

& PC 487(d)(1) Vehicle Theft

There are several laws that cover the crime of taking a vehicle without permission in California. By far the most common criminal charges are:

  • Unlawful Taking or Tampering with a Vehicle, also known as Unauthorized Use of Vehicle (VC 10851)
  • Joyriding (PC 499); and
  • Grand Theft Auto, also known as GTA (PC 472(d)(1).

This article is dedicated to a summary of the law, the defense, and the punishment associated with these three different types of closely related vehicle crimes.

VC 10851(a) Unauthorized Use of Vehicle

The law on the crime of Unlawful Taking or Tampering with a Vehicle, sometimes known as Unauthorized Use of Vehicle or simply Vehicle Theft, is found at California Vehicle Code Section 10851(a), and 10851(b).

In order to find the defendant guilty of VC 10851(a), the district attorney must prove that the defendant:

  • Took, or drove, someone else's vehicle without the owner's consent, and
  • When the defendant took the vehicle, he or she intended to deprive the owner of possession or ownership of the vehicle for any period of time

Note I: Even if the owner of the vehicle has previously given consent to the defendant to drive the vehicle it does not necessarily mean that the defendant had consent at any particular time thereafter. 

According to VC 10851(a), in order for the crime to have been committed the vehicle must have been moved at least some distance. For example, if the defendant is found in a vehicle without permission, but the vehicle is not proved to have been moved by the defendant, then the criminal charge of auto theft under VC 10851(a) can not be proved. However, proof that the vehicle was moved by the defendant can be proved by circumstantial evidence. For example: If the defendant is caught sleeping in a stolen vehicle ten miles from the owner's home, the circumstances will suggest that the defendant drove the vehicle.

Note II: Attempted Unauthorized Use of Vehicle (VC 664/10851(a)) may be charged where the defendant intended to, but did not actually move the vehicle. For example, where a defendant is caught in the act of unlawfully taking a vehicle but never actually moved the vehicle due to being caught in the act. Attempted Unauthorized Use of Vehicle is charged under VC 664/10851(a); the penalties for any violation of VC 664/10851(a) are less severe than they are for a violation of VC 10851(a) [a completed vehicle theft] 

Note III: A vehicle can be a motorcycle, scooter, bus, truck, tractor, etc. There are special penalty enhancements for certain types of vehicles that are stolen, such as an ambulance, firetruck, police car, specialized vehicle for disabled persons, etc.

Punishment for VC 10851(a)

Vehicle theft, or unauthorized use of vehicle, charged under 10851(a) can be charged as a misdemeanor or as a felony in California.

If found guilty of the crime of misdemeanor vehicle theft under Vehicle Code 10851(a), the defendant could face up to one (1) year in the county jail. If found guilty of the crime of felony vehicle theft under Vehicle Code 10851(a), the defendant could face up to four (4) years in prison. 

Note IV: Attempted Unauthorized Use of Vehicle, or Unlawful Taking or Use of Vehicle, charged under VC 664/10851(a) has a maximum penalty of two (2) years for a felony conviction and six (6) months for a misdemeanor conviction.

In addition to any possible jail/prison commitment, if the defendant is found guilty of unauthorized use of vehicle under vehicle code 10851(a), the defendant may have his driver's license revoked, be placed on probation, made to pay hefty fines, lose his right to practice a profession (for licensed professions and occupations), lose his right to immigration status (for non-U.S. citizens), face civil lawsuits from the owner of the owner of the vehicle, and more.

Note V: VC 10851(a) and 10851(b) are neither considered serious or violent offense under California law, nor are these crime considered strike offenses under California Three Strikes Law. If the defendant is sentenced to jail or prison upon conviction he or she may receive up to fifty percent (50%) credit for good time behavior while in jail or prison.

Probation Sentence: Common sentences for first time offenders include probation (either with or without jail), split sentences (half time in jail and half out of jail on work release), and suspended sentences (no jail or prison unless the defendant violates his or her probation terms).

Probation sentences are common for VC 10851(a) charges where the defendant has no criminal history; however, whether a defendant may receive a probation sentence offer is determined on a case-by-case basis. Probation is considered to be formal in felony cases and informal in misdemeanor cases. Formal probation means that the defendant will have a probation officer who regularly checks on the defendant to make sure that he or she is keeping up with the terms of his or her probation. Information probation (also called court probation and summary probation) does not require a probation officer. 

Defenses to VC 10851(a) & 10851(b)

Typical defenses to a charge of Unlawful Taking or Use of Vehicle, or Unauthorized Use of Vehicle, include:

  • Insufficient evidence Common in cases where the prosecutor can not show that the defendant did not have permission to use a certain vehicle or where the prosecutor can not prove the identity of the person who took the vehicle, etc
  • Mistake of fact Common in cases where the defendant truly, but wrongly, believed that he or she had permission to use a vehicle or mistakenly believed the vehicle he drove was the defendant's
  • Insanity This defense applies when the defendant did not know the difference between right and wrong due to a mental disease or defect, or could not appreciate the nature and quality of the act that he or she was committing 
  • Suppression of evidence This is a common defense when the police do not have probable cause (reasonable belief) to believe that the defendant committed a crime but nevertheless obtain evidence from the defendant without a warrant or consent (such as a statement from the defendant or fingerprints of the defendant after an unreasonable detention)
  • Statute of limitations The statute of limitations is a limit on the amount of time that the prosecutor has to bring criminal charges against the defendant: Three (3) year statute of limitations for felony VC 10851(a) charges and one (1) year statute of limitations for misdemeanor VC 10851(a) charges
  • Coerced or involuntary confession If a statement is obtained from the defendant after the police coerce the defendant to make the statement the statement may be made inadmissible (unusable) in any prosecution of the defendant for vehicle theft or any other crime. Involuntary confessions are forced, whereas coerced simply means excessive persuasion sufficient to overcome the defendant's will to make truthful statements 
  • Plea bargain reduction of charges A plea bargain is a reduction of a criminal charge to a lighter charge (charge bargaining) or a reduction of the sentence otherwise associated with the criminal charge (sentence bargaining) in exchange for a promise from the defendant to plead guilty to a criminal charge. Common plea bargains for unauthorized use of vehicle include a reduction from a felony charge of VC 10851(a) to a misdemeanor charge of VC 10851(a), or a plea bargain for a probation sentence
  • Consent This defense occurs where the alleged victim actually consented to the use of the vehicle...even if the alleged victim later withdrew consent the consent is still valid until the defendant actually learns of the withdrawal of consent by the owner of the vehicle

Vehicle Theft charged under PC 487(d)(1)

The difference between Unauthorized Use of Vehicle charged under vehicle code 10851(a) and Vehicle Theft (GTA) charged under penal code 487(d)(1) is that a 10851(a) charge does not require the district attorney to prove that the defendant intended to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle; whereas, the PC 487(d)(1) charge does require the district attorney to prove that the defendant intended to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle.

There are many similarities between VC 10851(a) and PC 487(d)(1), such as both vehicle crimes may be charged as misdemeanors or as felonies, the defenses are similar (except that the district attorney must prove that the defendant intended to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle in a PC 487(d)(1) charge, see above), and the penalties are similar.

The main difference between a VC 10851(a) Unlawful Taking or Use of Vehicle (or Unauthorized Use of Vehicle) criminal charge and a PC 487(d)(1) Vehicle Theft criminal charge has to do with immigration consequences for non-U.S. citizens and to reflect changes in the law that make it easier for district attorneys to prove the VC 10851(a) criminal charges (because they do not have to prove the defendant's intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle).

Joyriding: VC 10851(a) & PC 499

The crime of joyriding is usually charged under VC 10851(a) or 10851(b) Unlawful Taking or Use of Vehicle or Unauthorized Use of Vehicle. However, the crime of Joyriding, when charged under PC 499, is considered a less severe crime and has less impact on the defendant's immigration status or professional license. The crime of joyriding is usually charged as a misdemeanor with up to one (1) year in the county jail if found guilty.

Joyriding defenses are similar to VC 10851(a) Unlawful Taking or Use of Vehicle or Unauthorized Use of Vehicle as the two crimes are very similar (see above for defenses to VC 10851(a)).

If you are charged with either a vehicle theftgrand theft auto (GTA)unauthorized use of vehicle, Joyriding, or Unlawful Taking or Use of Vehicle under California Vehicle Code section 10851(a), or 10851(b), PC 487(d)(1), or PC 499, contact our criminal defense attorneys without delay.

Our criminal defense attorneys are experienced and successful in vehicle theft crimes. There is never a cost for an initial in-office consultation with one of our defense attorneys who will explain your rights and defense options. Call today!! 

909.913.3138

Criminal Defense Attorneys

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Unauthorized Use of Vehicle: VC 10851

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Se habla espanol / Abogados de defensa criminal

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Free Consultations 24/7

Se Habla Espanol / Abogados De Defensa Criminal

Unauthorized Use of Vehicle: VC 10851(a)

  • Animal Cruelty
  • Attempt Crimes
  • Brandishing
  • Burglary
  • Child Endangerment
  • Corporal Injury
  • Conspiracy
  • Criminal Threats
  • Domestic Battery
  • Drunk in Public
  • DUI
  • Evading Police
  • False Imprisonment
  • Hate Crimes
  • Identity Theft
  • Insurance Fraud
  • Kidnapping
  • Manslaughter
  • Murder
  • Oral Copulation
  • Pandering
  • Pimping
  • Petty Theft
  • Probation Violation
  • Prostitution
  • Receiving Stolen Property
  • Resisting Arrest
  • Sexual Battery
  • Spousal Abuse
  • Statutory Rape
  • Vandalism
  • Vehicle Theft
  • Welfare Fraud

Criminal Defense Lawyers, Serving

San Bernardino County

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Riverside, Moreno Valley, Banning, Corona, Beaumont, Eastvale, Perris, Hemet, Norco, Jurupa Valley

Los Angeles County

West Covina, Pomona, San Dimas, La Verne, Los Angeles, Glendora, Claremont

Closely Related Crimes to Vehicle Theft 10851(a)

  • PC 499(a) Joyriding with a prior auto theft conviction
  • PC 499(b) Joyriding with two prior auto theft convictions
  • PC 496(d)  Purchase or receive stolen vehicle


California Vehicle Theft Law (Unauthorized Taking of Vehicle) VC 10851(a) PC 487(d)

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