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In Pennsylvania, Car Theft Goes by Many Names

August 10, 2020

By Van Der Veen, Hartshorn, and Levin

Auto theft happens quite often in Pennsylvania, but there are several different types of auto theft offenses a person may face if they steal someone else’s vehicle. The main crimes related to stealing vehicles in the state include theft, carjacking, and joyriding. Although all of these crimes carry harsh penalties, including jail time, some are considered more serious than others.

Auto Theft

Stealing a vehicle with the intent to deprive the owner of the use of it is considered theft. Unlike other states that specifically define auto theft, stealing a vehicle in Pennsylvania falls under the broader definition of theft. However, most theft crimes in the state are charged and prosecuted depending on the value of the goods stolen. Auto theft though, is charged and prosecuted based on the nature of the stolen property, not the value of the vehicle. Simply put, a person will face the same consequences for stealing a vehicle regardless of whether it was worth $1,000 or $50,000. A conviction for an auto theft charge can result in up to 20 years in prison, and a maximum fine of $25,000.


In Pennsylvania, carjacking occurs when a vehicle is taken from the owner in the owner’s presence. While other states require force or threat of force for carjacking to occur, Pennsylvania does not have the same requirement. As long as a car is stolen in the presence of the owner, a person can be charged with carjacking. Carjacking typically occurs at gas stations and convenience stores, when the owner of a vehicle leaves their car momentarily, presenting an opportunity for someone else to steal it. A conviction for carjacking carries a penalty of up to ten years in jail.


Joyriding is the least serious offense related to car theft in Pennsylvania. Joyriding occurs when one person takes the vehicle of another person without their consent, but returns it. For example, a teenager may take their parent’s car knowing they do not have permission to use it, but they eventually bring it back. Although joyriding is the least serious offense in the state, it can still carry serious penalties, including probation, community service, and in some cases, even jail time.

Defenses to Auto Theft

Regardless of the type of auto theft a person is charged with, there are two main defenses used in these cases. The first is that the defendant had consent, or believed they had consent. Under Pennsylvania’s joyriding law, if the accused person believed the owner of the vehicle would have provided consent, that can also serve as a valid defense.

Secondly, intent can also provide a defense. When a defendant claims that they did not intend to deprive the owner of the vehicle, an auto theft charge can be reduced to joyriding.

Our Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Lawyers can Help with Your Charges

No matter the type of auto theft a person is charged with in Pennsylvania, a conviction can result in jail time, high fines, and a permanent criminal record. At van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim, our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers know the defenses that can help with your case and give you the best chance of retaining your freedom. If you have been charged, call us today at (215) 486-0123 or contact us online to schedule a meeting with one of our attorneys.


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