During an average year in Texas, over 65,000 cars and trucks are stolen from their owners and nearly 200,000 vehicle burglaries leave owners missing objects taken from their vehicles. Police and prosecutors take vehicle theft crimes seriously, resulting in prosecutions that send thousands of people to Texas jails and prisons for crimes from carjacking to joyriding. Most vehicle theft crimes are charged under the state’s standard theft laws, with the severity of the crime and the degree of punishment based on the value of any items taken and whether deadly weapons or threats of violence were used in the commission of a given crime.
Anyone facing legal consequences related to vehicle theft-related criminal charges needs to speak with a capable criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The experienced attorneys at Cofer & Connelly, PLLC have managed all kinds of vehicle theft-related crime cases and understand the strategies and tactics that may be used effectively against tough criminal charges.
Vehicle Theft Offenses in Texas
Texas laws govern crimes ranging from stealing things from inside cars to stealing vehicles outright to various other offenses. Some significant auto-related theft crimes include:
- Vehicle theft
- Unauthorized use of a motor vehicle
- Altering a VIN
- Failure to return a rental car
- Possessing, selling, or purchasing stolen vehicles or parts
- Dealing in stolen auto exports (a federal offense)
The classification of a given crime and the severity of any potential punishment for that crime vary depending on the facts of any particular case. Some offense levels are based on the value of the vehicle or car parts involved in the theft, while others vary based on the facts of the crime and how it was carried out.
The violent crime of taking a vehicle from its rightful owner who is driving it is often referred to as carjacking. Texas laws don’t have a crime that specifically forbids this crime, and the laws don’t speak of “carjacking.” Instead, offenses of this type are punished under the state’s robbery laws. Robbery is defined as theft using violence or the threat of force to accomplish the taking.
Robbery by force or threats of violence is a second-degree felony, as in a carjacking where someone takes a car away from its driver by use of force or violent threats. If convicted, a defendant can face a sentence of two to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000. If the crime caused anyone to suffer a serious bodily injury or the accused showed a deadly weapon during the course of the robbery, the charges will increase to an aggravated robbery. This charge is a first-degree felony with the potential for five-to-99 years in prison and fines of as much as $10,000.
Taking a vehicle that belongs to someone else with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of it is vehicle theft. If the taking is done separate from the presence of the vehicle’s owner, with no threat or use of force to accomplish the act, as in a robbery, it is prosecuted under standard Texas law of theft. The level of the crime charged is based on the value of the property stolen—the more valuable the stolen property, the more severe the theft charges. Prosecutors rely on the property's fair market value to determine the charges, meaning what the car would sell for on the open market or its replacement value.
Based on a vehicle's value, charges can range from a Class C misdemeanor up to a felony in the first degree. An old used car that is worth less than $2,500 would result in misdemeanor charges. Values above that lead to felony charges in Texas. For example, theft of a car with a value in the range between $2,500 and $30,000 will result in state jail felony criminal charges that can be punished with a jail sentence of 180 days to two years in state jail and fines of up to $10,000. Theft of a vehicle valued at $30,000 to $150,000 will result in third-degree felony charges. A conviction will result in a sentence of two-to-10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Burglary Of Vehicles
Texas law defines burglary of vehicles as when someone enters any part of a vehicle with the intent to commit theft or any other felony without the consent of the vehicle’s owner. The law defines “entering” a vehicle to include the intrusion of any part of a person’s body or any physical object connected with the person’s body into a vehicle. By this definition, someone using a long-handled tool to reach through a car’s window and pick up an object from inside would meet the legal standard of “burglary” of that vehicle, even if the person’s body never entered the car.
Burglary of a vehicle is a Class A misdemeanor. Suppose the accused has previously been convicted under this law. In that case, conviction on the charge would result in a minimum of six months confinement. It is a state jail felony if an individual has been convicted more than twice for this offense or if the crime involved breaking into a rail car. The crime is a third-degree felony if a wholesale distributor of prescription drugs owns the vehicle that is broken into, and the burglary was committed with the intent to steal controlled substances from the car.
Joyriding Or Unauthorized Use Of A Vehicle
Texas law defines auto theft as the “unauthorized use of a vehicle.” Also known as joyriding, the unauthorized use of a vehicle that doesn’t involve an intent to deprive the owner of the use of the vehicle permanently is a crime under Texas law. This offense may involve some kids taking their parents’ car without permission for a short time and bringing it back unharmed a few hours later, or it could involve a crime of opportunity where someone sees a vehicle with keys in it and decides to drive around for a while and then drop it off somewhere else.
While the circumstances of the crime and the relations between the parties may play a role in how the offense is charged and punished, the offense is generally classified as a state jail felony. Punishment for a state jail felony can result in a fine of up to $10,000 and a jail sentence of 180 days to two years.
Altering a VIN
A Vehicle Identification Number—a car’s VIN—is a unique set of letters and digits that is associated directly with one individual car only. Sometimes called a “Social Security number for cars,” VIN information is stamped on a vehicle in a few locations so that it can always be used for identification of that vehicle. When someone purposely alters or removes a serial number, they usually do so for the purpose of fraud or to sell a stolen vehicle. Tampering with a VIN is a Class A misdemeanor that can result in a punishment of up to a year in jail and a fine of as much as $4,000.
Failure to Return a Rental Car
When someone tries to make off with a rental car, this crime is prosecuted under Texas laws related to “theft of services” because the offense is directed against a company that provides the service of letting the public use their cars for a set time for a fee. Any criminal charges that stem from an offense are related directly to the value of the vehicle. Many rental cars are valued in the range of $2,500 to $30,000, which leads to state jail felony charges that can be punished by 180 days to two years in jail. Failure to return a rental car valued from $30,000 to $150,000 can lead to third-degree felony theft charges with the potential for two to ten years of prison time if a defendant is convicted.
Possessing, Selling, or Purchasing Stolen Car Parts
Thefts involving removing parts from a car and reselling them at market value are governed by Texas laws that forbid the possession, sale, or purchase of stolen car parts. If connected to car theft, the seller or buyer can face charges of car parts theft under Texas law.
Dealing in Stolen Auto Exports
Most auto theft-related crimes are state offenses that are prosecuted in Texas courts, but dealing in stolen automobile exports is a federal crime that will likely result in the U.S. District Attorney’s office prosecuting the case. This type of crime risks federal prison time as a potential punishment.
Defenses to Vehicle Theft Offenses in Texas
Everyone benefits from a number of U.S. and Texas constitutional legal protections designed to ensure that police and prosecutors play by the rules when they investigate crimes and file charges. Suppose that the search that law enforcement relied on to gather evidence in your case was based on faulty suspicions or an improper warrant. Under those circumstances, an attorney could raise arguments to exclude evidence from consideration in court. Or, if the prosecutor took too long to get your case to trial, a speedy trial argument might work in your favor.
State Of Mind
Most charges related to vehicle theft offenses require a specific state of mind. Often the law speaks of a “knowing or intentional” act that is required to meet the elements of the crime. An experienced defense lawyer understands the types of proof that a prosecutor must have to meet the high burden of showing the intent required by the law. A skilled lawyer knows how to push back if the prosecutor doesn’t have the proof they need to make their case.
Often, criminal charges are based on someone’s word and their perceptions of things that they think they saw happen. A capable lawyer can examine every fact they’ve alleged in light of the truth to show that the allegations don’t hold up under close examination.
Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Texas
If you’ve been charged with a vehicle theft-related crime, it’s time to get a strong defense attorney on your side. A conviction on the charges can leave you with damage to your reputation in the community and facing the prospect of serving time behind bars and paying hefty fees. This is no time to hope for a good result with a court-appointed attorney; you need the best legal counsel you can get. Contact Cofer & Connelly, PLLC today to schedule a consultation and learn about our approach to criminal defense representation.
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