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Motor vehicle theft is one of the most common forms of major theft, and it can result in lengthy prison sentences and hefty fines – even for a first offense.

Unfortunately, auto theft is on the rise in North Carolina. More than 15,000 automobiles were reported stolen in North Carolina in 2015, and the overall rate of motor vehicle theft has increased substantially in recent years. Police have therefore cracked down on auto theft, meaning that more car theft arrests may be imminent.

With extra police attention devoted to the matter, it’s important to understand the various types of theft associated with motor vehicles in our state.

How Motor Vehicle Theft is Charged in North Carolina

North Carolina is unique from many other states in that it does not have a law that punishes motor vehicle theft as a specific crime. Instead, North Carolina auto thefts are prosecuted under the general crime of larceny, or theft.

Taking another’s motor vehicle with the intention to permanently deprive its owner of it constitutes larceny. Knowingly receiving or possessing a stolen car also constitutes larceny.

Under larceny law, if the item is valued at under $1,000, larceny is generally charged as a Class 1 misdemeanor. However, statute G.S. 20-106 makes it a felony to possess any stolen vehicle, meaning you will most likely be charged with a felony even for stealing a vehicle worth under $1,000.

Additionally, larceny law dictates that if you steal a car part and it is valued at over $1,000 (a value that includes the cost of the part and any associated labor costs), it is automatically charged as a Class I felony.

Other North Carolina Vehicle-Related Crimes

In addition to the theft of vehicles and parts, North Carolina also recognizes several other auto-related crimes:

  • Carjacking: Taking another’s car by force or threat of force is considered carjacking. North Carolina does not have a specific law for carjacking. Rather, it is prosecuted as robbery, which is a felony-level offense.

 How Motor Vehicle Theft is Charged in North Carolina

  • Joyriding: Taking another’s vehicle without permission – but also without the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property – is considered joyriding. This is prosecuted as unauthorized use of a motor-propelled conveyance, which is a Class 1 misdemeanor.
  • Keeping a rental car: Keeping a rental car beyond the allotted time may be considered a criminal offense. It is usually prosecuted as joyriding or theft, depending on the circumstances of the alleged offense.

Penalties for North Carolina Auto Theft

For the theft of vehicle parts valued under $1,000, you will be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor. If you have no prior convictions, the punishment for a Class 1 misdemeanor is 1-45 days of incarceration.

For the theft of any vehicle (regardless of value), you will be charged with a Class H felony, which is punishable by 4-8 months of incarceration. The most common sentence for a Class H felony is 5-6 months.

Defenses against Auto Theft Charges in NC

If you are accused of auto theft or related crimes, the appropriate defense will depend on the circumstances of the alleged offense.

Common defenses for auto theft include:

  • Consent: If you have or believe that you have permission from the vehicle’s owner for its use, you are not committing theft by taking the car. If you previously had consent for the vehicle’s use, this defense may be appropriate. However, it is most effective if you are able to show it was reasonable for you to believe that this permission was continuing and that it therefore would have covered the alleged offense in question.
  • Mistake of fact: If you borrow or use a stolen vehicle and are unaware that it is stolen, this does not constitute larceny. The defense for this occurrence is known as mistake of fact.
  • Permanent deprivation: To commit larceny, you must intend to permanently deprive the owner of the stolen property in question. If you take a vehicle but do not intend to keep it permanently, this is considered joyriding, not theft.

Penalties for North Carolina Auto Theft 

  • Intoxication: If you were very intoxicated at the time of the alleged offense, you may have been unable to form the intent required to commit larceny. For example, if you were intoxicated and could reasonably have mistaken the car as your own or been unaware of your actions, you would not have intended to commit theft. This defense, however, should only be used in very specific circumstances. Consult with a lawyer if you believe it could apply in your situation.
  • Duress: If you committed the alleged offense under the threat or reasonably perceived threat of harm, a duress defense may be appropriate. However, for a duress defense to be effective, you must be able to prove that you were unable to escape the threat of harm prior to committing the offense.

Bottom line? Vehicle theft crimes are very serious, and a conviction for auto theft in North Carolina will result in severe penalties and long-lasting consequences. If you are facing auto theft charges, get in touch with a knowledgeable North Carolina criminal defense attorney immediately.


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