Stealing a Motor Vehicle
Stealing a car is a serious crime that carries the potential of a long state prison sentence. A subsequent offense carries a mandatory minimum one-year jail sentence.
In order to convict a defendant of stealing a car, the Commonwealth must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
- The defendant took the motor vehicle;
- The defendant did not own the motor vehicle or have any legal right to take it; and
- The defendant intended to permanently deprive the rightful owner of the motor vehicle.
- The Commonwealth is not obligated to prove the defendant took the vehicle for a long time or that he drove it a long distance – only that the defendant physically transferred the vehicle to his control for some period.
- The Commonwealth does not need to identify the true owner of the car at trial – only that the defendant is not the true owner. As a practical matter, in most cases the prosecutor will identify the owner (and probably call him to testify), but it is not an element of the crime.
- Claim of right – If the defendant honestly (but mistakenly) believed he had the legal right to take the car, he lacked the intent to steal, which is an element of the crime. Therefore, if the defendant believed he was borrowing a car with the blessing of the owner, but the owner did not remember giving permission to the defendant to take the car, the defendant would not be guilty.
- Identity – Unless the police stop a stolen car and find the defendant sitting in the driver’s seat, it may be difficult to prove the defendant was the person who stole it. These cases are often circumstantial and the Commonwealth might rely on physical evidence to establish the defendant was the thief. If the Commonwealth is depending on fingerprints or DNA evidence to prove the defendant stole the car, there may be innocent reasons why the defendant’s biological material was present in the car.
- Third-party culprit – What if the defendant bought the car from the thief not knowing the car was stolen? If the defendant did not know that the car was stolen from the true owner, he cannot be convicted of stealing the car (both because he was not the thief, and because he lacked the criminal intent). If, on the other hand, the defendant knowingly took possession of a stolen car, even if he didn’t steal it himself, he will be guilty of the related crime of receiving a stolen motor vehicle.
In addition to the criminal penalties associated with the conviction for stealing a car, the court is required to notify the Registry of Motor Vehicles of a conviction. The Registry of Motor Vehicles is then obligated to suspend the defendant’s driver’s license for one year from the date of the conviction. The Registry is not supposed to return the defendant’s license until the entire one-year suspension has been served. As always, the collateral consequences of a conviction may be as burdensome for a defendant as the punishment in the criminal case.