Is grand theft auto a felony? How harsh are the courts on a first-time conviction? What circumstances make the sentence worse or better?
What is grand theft auto?
Theft of an automobile, which is commonly known as grand theft auto, occurs when you take, steal, or drive another person's vehicle without his or her permission, with the intent to deprive him or her of the vehicle. Grand theft auto can range from a premeditated theft of another person's automobile, to "borrowing" a neighbor's car for a teenage joyride. It is not always necessary that you be the person who stole the vehicle in order for you to commit grand theft auto; under some state laws, you may have committed grand theft auto simply by being a passenger in a vehicle that you know is stolen.
You also don't have to keep the vehicle permanently in order to be convicted of grand theft auto; rather, you can be convicted of grand theft auto even if you borrow or use the vehicle without permission for a very shore period of time. Additionally, in many states, grand theft auto must involve a vehicle with a value greater than a certain minimum value, such as $400 in California, and $300 in Florida.
When is it a felony?
Grand theft auto is typically charged as a felony in most states. However, if you have no prior convictions, you may only be charged with misdemeanor grand theft auto under some state laws, in certain situations. For instance, if you have no criminal record and you were merely a passenger who did not at first realize that your buddy had stolen a car, then you might be charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony. However, in some states, you might still be facing felony charges in such a situation.
A first conviction for grand theft auto usually results in jail or prison time in excess of one year, depending on whether it is a felony or misdemeanor grand theft auto conviction, and can involve significant fines, probation, community service, and/or suspension of your driver's license, depending on the state. However, any subsequent convictions for grand theft auto are likely to result in more substantial jail or prison sentences and fines. As a general rule, any prior criminal convictions will tend to make penalties for subsequent criminal convictions more severe. Plus, in states with "three strikes" laws, such as California, a felony conviction for grand theft auto is likely to count as one of your three "strikes", which may ultimately result in more serious punishment for your grand theft auto felony charge. Additionally, even a first felony conviction can make you ineligible for certain employment or professions.
There are some legitimate defenses for grand theft auto that may apply under certain circumstances. For instance, a common defense is that you had the vehicle owner's permission to drive or otherwise use the vehicle. Another defense is that you didn't intend to keep the vehicle permanently, but only intended to use the vehicle on a temporary basis. In other circumstances, you might present mistake as a defense, i.e. that you mistakenly thought you had permission to borrow a relative's car, or were mistaken about the car's legal owner.