Motor vehicle theft is a serious crime that falls under federal jurisdiction in some cases, and the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) defines motor vehicle theft as intentionally stealing, or trying to steal, any self-propelled vehicle that runs on land and not rails.
Examples include virtually all passenger cars and SUVs, motorcycles, light-duty and commercial trucks, buses, RVs, motor scooters, snowmobiles, and ATVs. However, the FBI typically doesn't include stealing farm equipment, construction equipment, bulldozers, airplanes, or watercraft as motor vehicle theft, although you can still face charges for stealing those types of vehicles.
Federal law prohibits transporting stolen vehicles across state lines, and it includes receiving, possessing, or selling a stolen vehicle or any of the vehicle's parts, such as its engine, doors, and wheels.
If the federal government has arrested you or is investigating you for federal motor vehicle theft, you can face harsh penalties if convicted. You need to understand the charges you are facing so you can better prepare an effective defense, and you need to consult an experienced federal criminal defense attorney immediately for help.
When Is Motor Vehicle Theft a Federal Offense?
Although usually a state crime, motor vehicle theft becomes a federal crime if it crosses state or international boundaries or affects interstate or foreign commerce. To prosecute you, the government will have to show:
- The vehicle was stolen.
- You knew the vehicle was stolen.
- You transported it across state lines or international borders.
The government has several statutes regarding motor vehicle theft, and many fall under crimes involving property. The government also enacted the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which includes provisions regarding “chop shops” and other crimes involving the procurement and sale of so-called “crash” parts of vehicles, such as fenders, hoods, and doors.
Over the years, the Motor Vehicle Theft Act has been amended to include requirements for both foreign and domestic vehicle manufacturers to place identifying information, such as VIN numbers, on any major vehicle parts that are “frequent theft targets.” These include engines, transmissions, and at least 12 other major components. The act has also been expanded to make it a federal crime to own, operate, or maintain a “chop shop.”
Exceptions to Federal Prosecution
The law also offers exceptions to when people can face federal charges for motor vehicle theft. The following are instances where you cannot face federal prosecution for motor vehicle theft even if you committed the offense across state lines:
- You were joy-riding (riding in a stolen car).
- You are a juvenile.
- You are between 18 and 21 but are not considered a recidivist. This means you have had no more than two arrests for vehicle theft or no more than one conviction for vehicle theft or another criminal offense.
These exceptions apply only in circumstances where the juvenile was turned over to state authorities or where the accused was not part of an organized criminal ring.
Penalties for Federal Motor Vehicle Theft
For transporting, selling, or receiving stolen vehicles, you can receive up to 10 years in prison and fines. You can also face charges and penalties for trafficking in certain motor vehicles or motor vehicle parts, particularly if the VIN number or other identifying information has been removed, scratched out, or altered. If convicted of owning or operating a chop shop, you could receive up to 15 years in prison and fines.
The law also mandates that you forfeit the motor vehicle or other stolen property, and you may have to pay restitution to the rightful owner of the vehicle or property for any damage you caused or for the total loss of the vehicle.
Along with charges for motor vehicle theft, you can face other charges depending on the circumstances of the case. For instance, prosecutors may be able to charge you with:
- Armed robbery
- Organized crime (RICO) charges
- Auto dealer fraud
Some crimes carry sentences that can go as high as 20 years to life in prison. You may even face charges for fraud and counterfeiting if you change the VIN numbers, for instance.
Additionally, there are other so-called “exceptional circumstances” that can lead to federal charges, including using the stolen vehicle to commit another felony and stealing heavy construction or farm equipment, among others.
Defenses for Interstate Violation of Protection Order
The government takes allegations of motor vehicle theft seriously and prosecutes cases aggressively. However, prosecutors must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to all 12 jurors to convict you.
You likely have defense options available, and you need an objective case evaluation from an experienced defense attorney. After reviewing your case, your attorney could identify any of the following defense options:
- Lack of intent to permanently deprive – If you take a car but intend on returning it to the owner, you shouldn't face charges for car theft. A crime like joy-riding has its own penalties, but they are usually far less severe than motor vehicle theft.
- Lack of knowledge – You didn't know the car was stolen or that the vehicle parts you were carrying were stolen.
- Owner consent – If the owner of the car gave you consent to take the vehicle, then you did not commit a crime.
However, you could be in a situation where you were using the vehicle for an unauthorized purpose, and the owner reported the car stolen. One example is if you have access to a company car and take it somewhere you weren't supposed to. Also, some parents will report a vehicle stolen if their child takes the family car without permission, for instance. While you may face charges for unauthorized use of a vehicle, the penalties will likely be far less serious.
Contact an Experienced Federal Defense Attorney
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has successfully defended many clients in New Jersey district court on interstate violation of protection order charges and other federal offenses. Call the Lento Law Firm Team at 888-535-3686 or fill out our contact form to request a confidential consultation.