UPDATED 8/16/2021, Original Post: August 15, 2019
While many states have separate statutes covering grand theft auto, Texas is unique in that auto theft is not covered by a specific statute. So, depending upon the circumstances and nature of the alleged offense, you may be charged under several different criminal statutes.
Because Texas auto theft crimes can be charged as several types of offenses, the laws surrounding auto theft can quickly become complex. It is important to consult with a Texas criminal attorney to go over the specific facts of your case and determine which criminal statute applies and the steps that can be taken to defend your theft case.
For example, there are several considerations that must be examined and investigated when deciding whether an auto theft will be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. Was the owner of the vehicle was present? What is the value of the vehicle involved? Did you have consent to drive the vehicle? Answers to these questions will determine the severity of the charge and subsequent consequences. Sentences for auto theft can range from probation to years behind bars.
Grand Theft Auto in Texas
Grand theft auto is defined as taking someone else’s vehicle with the intent to permanently keep it. You could also be accused of grand theft auto if you purchase a car without a proper title, fail to file paperwork upon purchase or receipt of an auto, or if you fail to return a rental.
There is no specific law addressing grand theft auto in Texas, so this offense is prosecuted under Texas’s general theft statute. The penalty solely depends upon the value of the allegedly stolen vehicle.
Under Texas law, you can expect the following sentencing and penalties for theft:
- Theft of property less than $750
- Class B misdemeanor.
- Punishable by up to 180 days in jail, up to $2,000 fine
- Theft of property valued at $750-$2,500
- Class A misdemeanor.
- Up to one year in jail, up to $4,000 fine
- Theft of property valued at $2,500-$30,000
- State jail felony
- 180 days – 2 years in state prison, up to $10,000 fine
- Theft of property valued at $30,000-$150,000
- Third-degree felony; 2-10 years in prison, up to $10,000 fine
- Theft of property valued at $150,000-$300,000
- Second degree felony
- 2-20 years in prison, up to $10,000 fine
- Theft of property valued at $300,000+
- First-degree felony
- 5-99 years in prison, up to $10,000 fine
If someone receives a probation sentence for Auto theft charges, the judge could make it a condition of probation that the offender must pay restitution to the victim equivalent to the auto’s market price or replacement value plus up to $1,000 for the trouble. This situation would only arise if the vehicle was not recovered, or the vehicle was damaged in some way as part of the theft.
Defenses To Grand Theft Auto in Texas
One of the most important aspects of hiring an auto theft attorney in Texas is to make sure and ask the lawyer to articulate the specific legal defenses that are available for your case.
It is critical to remember that the State of Texas has the burden of proof to prove every element of auto theft beyond a reasonable doubt. You are not required to prove anything. As such, your criminal defense attorney’s ability to provide reasonable doubt to a set of facts helps to give you leverage in negotiating your resolution to the case.
Although every case is unique and fact-specific, let’s examine a few common defenses that may be available to you as you fight your Texas auto theft charges.
As we discussed above, the only difference between a misdemeanor and felony auto theft charge is the value assigned to the vehicle that was allegedly stolen. How much is a used vehicle really worth? What condition is the vehicle in? How did the police value the vehicle? Did the police take the alleged victim’s word for it and write up a report without specific proof of value?
This scenario becomes especially important when you have a vehicle that is worth close to $2,500. We have seen instances where an alleged victim claimed their car was worth $3,000 and it was not running, had dents all over it and looked like it had been in that condition for quite some time. Why does this matter? If the condition of the vehicle coupled with the claim of the alleged victim of value does not add up to a true market price, you will have reasonable doubt as to value. What happens if the true market value of the vehicle is $2,000 instead of $3,000? You now have a misdemeanor theft charge instead of a felony theft charge.
This criminal defense is critical to examine early in your defense strategy session with your criminal attorney. Why? Because every felony crime in Texas must be indicted by a grand jury. A grand jury is a group of citizens that meet on 90-day sessions. They listen to evidence presented to them and they have 3 options: (1) Keep the felony case as a felony; (2) lower the charge to a lesser felony or misdemeanor charge; (3) No Bill the case – the equivalent of having your case dismissed for lack of evidence.
In the situation mentioned above, your criminal defense attorney could present a packet of evidence to the grand jury clearly showing that similar vehicles in similar condition are selling for a much lower price. This would establish a clearer picture of what the market price and replacement cost would be. If the grand jury has doubt about the value of the vehicle, the auto theft case could be lowered to a lesser misdemeanor charge and reassigned to a misdemeanor court.
No Criminal Intent
To prove the crime of auto theft, the State of Texas must prove that you intentionally or knowingly took someone else’s vehicle with the intent to permanently deprive them of that vehicle.
What if you had originally been given consent to use the vehicle? What if you had a reasonable belief that you had been given consent and had no specific intent to keep the vehicle? All evidence (emails, texts, receipts) that would indicate you lacked the specific intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property can be used as evidence to create reasonable doubt surrounding the element of criminal intent.
In fact, if evidence exists to show you had consent to use the vehicle or that you had no specific intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle, your criminal defense lawyer can present this evidence to a grand jury. The grand jury can weigh this evidence with the evidence presented by the prosecutor, and you may be able to be exonerated by a no bill finding. It is critical that this evidence that you lacked specific intent be presented to your criminal lawyer. Don’t wait or you could lose out on the opportunity to present the evidence to a grand jury.
Texas Carjacking Charges
Carjacking is when someone takes a vehicle from the owner or driver using force or the threat of force. There must be specific intent to permanently deprive the owner of their vehicle while also using force or the threat of force to obtain the property.
In Texas, carjacking is prosecuted under the state’s robbery statutes.
A Texas robbery equates to second-degree felony charges, which are punishable by 2-20 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
Aggravating factors, such as the use of a deadly weapon or concealment of one’s identity, elevate the charge to aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony which can land you up to 99 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
What if there was a taking of property but no physical injury? What if the alleged threat of injury was vague? What if there was an injury but no actual taking of the vehicle? These questions point out the fact that there must be both a taking of property with the intent to permanently deprive AND actual force or threat of immediate force.
If the evidence indicates that only a vehicle was stolen and no force or threat of force was used, the charge may be able to be lowered to a lesser charge of auto theft. If the vehicle was not being stolen but there was an altercation that resulted in injury, your charges may be able to be lowered to a Class A misdemeanor charge of assault bodily injury.
For a carjacking or robbery charge to be lowered to a lesser charge, your criminal defense attorney needs to gather evidence favorable to you and provide a packet to the grand jury for consideration to no bill the case or reduce it to a lesser criminal charge.
Joyriding in Texas
Although the State of Texas does not have a specific crime by the name of joyriding, Joyriding entails operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent. The critical difference between auto theft and joyriding is that joyriding does not involve the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle. In many states, joyriding is considered a lesser crime than auto theft because there is an intent to return the auto to its owner.
In other words, if you “borrow” a car without asking, you could face charges for joyriding. For example, we have represented a client in a situation where the teenage son was originally given permission to drive his father’s car to hang out with his friends, but not to drive to the beach. The father learns that his son took his car all the way to the Gulf Coast, and he becomes irate and calls the police to report his vehicle stolen. The father doesn’t really want his son charged with a felony, but he wants him to learn a lesson that he cannot take off with his car and go wherever he wants to go. As a result, the police find the teenage boy driving back from the coast and he is arrested for the crime of joyriding.
The official charge for joyriding in Texas is unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, which is a state jail felony carrying 180 days to 2 years maximum in a Texas state prison. You may still be held liable for the fine of $10,000. It may seem strange but under Texas law, borrowing without the owner’s consent can be as serious as auto theft, depending upon the circumstances of the case.
If your unauthorized use of a motor vehicle is handled by an experienced criminal defense attorney, they may be able to resolve your case in manner that will allow you to have the arrest and charges expunged or sealed from your criminal record. What if you already have a criminal record? Your criminal attorney may be able to negotiate a resolution that would allow this felony charge to be punished as a misdemeanor under 12.44(a). A 12.44(a) punishment provides for a local jail sentence that avoids prison and may be eligible to be served under a community service option known as labor detail.
It may come as a surprise, but prosecutors often have difficulty proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt when it comes to Texas auto theft charges. Maybe your alleged victim has now come forward and said they do not want to prosecute you? Maybe they are willing to write an affidavit of non-prosecution providing facts that may be favorable to you regarding consent or value of the vehicle. This should be taken care of as soon as possible to give your criminal attorney the best opportunity to get this evidence before a grand jury to no bill your auto theft case.
There are several viable defense strategies to help your case, and with the proper guidance and representation, you may be able to have your charges reduced or altogether dropped. Reach out to an experienced Fort Worth auto theft defense attorney to learn more about how.
Call The Fulgham Law Firm for a free case analysis and consultation. We will be happy to answer all your questions regarding auto theft cases in Texas and help you get in control of your defense strategy so that you can put this situation behind you.
About the Author:
Brandon Fulgham has an in-depth understanding of both Texas law and Texans themselves. Before practicing law here, he received his undergraduate degree from TCU, and his law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston. After graduation, he worked in District Attorneys’ offices as a prosecutor, building cases designed to put people behind bars. Now, he uses that knowledge to protect the rights of people in and around Fort Worth, making sure they receive the strongest possible defense when they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. He has been recognized for his work by The National Trial Lawyers, Fort Worth Magazine, and others.