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Is Theft from a Motor Vehicle Burglary in Pennsylvania?

September 18, 2019

By Van Der Veen, Hartshorn, and Levin

In early July a jack hammer was stolen from a truck. The jack hammer was valued at $190. It’s unknown if there was any damage to the truck, but the story is an interesting one. Theft cases involving items stolen from motor vehicles are common. How do the courts define this crime, though? Is it burglary, or another type of theft crime?

Burglary vs. Theft from a Motor Vehicle in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, burglary is defined as entering any part of a building or occupied structure with the intent to commit a crime once inside. This is different than other states, which consider burglary as entering any structure. The laws in those states often includes motor vehicles, water vessels, and even aircraft. In Pennsylvania however, theft from a motor vehicle is a separate crime from burglary.

Instead, theft from a motor vehicle is more similar to the crime of theft by unlawful taking in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania statute defines theft from a motor vehicle as stealing, or attempting to steal, property that belongs to someone else from another person’s motor vehicle. In most cases, a person must break into a vehicle in order to steal contents inside. This causes damage to the vehicle and so, theft from a motor vehicle typically carries harsher sentences than theft of unlawful taking.

Theft from a Motor Vehicle Misdemeanor vs. Felony

In Pennsylvania, theft from a motor vehicle is considered either a misdemeanor or a felony. Like most theft charges, the gradation will depend on the value of the items stolen, and if the defendant has prior convictions.

When the property taken was less than $50, the crime is considered a misdemeanor of the third degree. If the items taken were valued between $50 and $200, the offense is considered a misdemeanor of the second degree. When the property stolen was valued over $200, the offense is charged as a misdemeanor in the first degree.

Theft from a motor vehicle is typically only charged as a felony when the defendant has two prior offenses within the five years prior to the new charge. In these situations, the crime is charged as a felony in the third degree.

Defenses to Theft from a Motor Vehicle

Theft from a motor vehicle may not sound like a major crime, but the charges can quickly become serious. For this reason, it’s important to have a solid defense.

Like all crimes, mistaken identity is often used as a defense to theft from a motor vehicle. Sometimes law enforcement simply charge the wrong person, and eyewitnesses mistake one person for another.

Another defense that is more commonly used today is that the person in control of the property did not know it was stolen. For example, someone steals something from a motor vehicle and sells it on eBay. Someone purchases it, but does not know that it was stolen. Law enforcement may find the property in an investigation, but the individual in control of the property cannot be convicted of theft from a motor vehicle. This was the ruling in the Pennsylvania case of Commonwealth v. Matthews.

Lastly, while not necessarily a defense to a crime, criminal defense attorneys will often attempt to lower the value of the property stolen. This can have the charges reduced, and those accused will face much lighter sentences.

Facing Charges? Call a Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Attorney that can Help

People are charged with theft from a motor vehicle quite often in Pennsylvania. When they are, they need the help of an Allentown criminal defense attorney that can help them beat the charges, or get them reduced. At van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim, we are dedicated to helping individuals charged with a crime. After reviewing your case, we will build a strong defense to give you the best chance of a positive outcome. Call us today at (215) 486-0123 to learn more about what we can do for you.



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