The Crime of California Auto Burglary
California Penal Code 459 PC

In California, the crime of auto burglary takes place when someone enters a locked automobile or its trunk, with the intent to

  • steal the car (also known as "grand theft auto" or "GTA"),
  • steal property contained in the car (i.e., commit the California crime of petty theft or grand theft), or
  • commit any other California felony inside the vehicle.1

Under California law, burglary of an automobile is actually a subset of the general crime of burglary under Penal Code 459 PC.2

When most people think of burglary, they think of entering a house or other building to steal something inside it. But in fact the California crime of burglary includes:

  1. breaking into a car or other vehicle (i.e., auto burglary), AND
  2. breaking into a car or building to commit felonies other than theft crimes.3

Another surprising fact about California auto burglary law is that it does not cover the simple act of breaking into someone else's locked car. Instead, a car break-in is only considered auto burglary if the person intended to commit a theft of the vehicle or property inside of it, or the person intended to commit some other felony inside the vehicle.4

Examples

Examples of behavior that could lead to charges under California's auto burglary law include:

  • Smashing the window of a locked car in order to steal an iPod that the owner left behind on the seat,
  • Using a screwdriver to unlock a locked car that you intend to steal, and
  • Breaking into a locked car with the intention of hiding inside it until the owner returns and then kidnapping him/her.
Penalties

California auto burglary is a form of so-called "second-degree" burglary.5

Second-degree burglary (including auto burglary) is a wobbler. This means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the prosecutor's choice.6

If you are charged with auto burglary as a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty will be imprisonment in the county jail for up to one (1) year.7

If you are charged with auto burglary as a felony, the jail sentence may be sixteen (16) months, two (2) years, or three (3) years.8

Legal Defenses

Given these penalties, it is well worth your while to fight these charges. An experienced California theft crimes defense attorney can help you explore certain legal defenses that could help get your auto burglary charges reduced or dismissed. These include:

  • The car wasn't locked,
  • You didn't intend to commit a theft or felony inside the car, and
  • The evidence against you is insufficient.

In this article, our California criminal defense attorneys will provide a comprehensive overview of auto burglary law under California Penal Code 459 PC by addressing the following:

1. Legal Definition of Auto Burglary in California
2. What Are the Penalties for California Auto Burglary?
3. What Are the Legal Defenses to California Auto Burglary Under Penal Code 459 PC?
4. Related Offenses

4.1. Burglary

4.2. Grand theft auto

4.3. Grand theft / petty theft

4.4. Vehicle tampering

If, after reading this article, you have additional questions or would like to speak to a California hit and run defense lawyer, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

You may also find helpful information in our related articles on Legal Definition of a California Felony; Petty Theft & Shoplifting Laws California Penal Code 484 & 488 PC; Legal Definition of a Wobbler in California Law; Legal Definition of a Misdemeanor in California Law; Common Legal Defenses to California Crimes; California Burglary Penal Code 459 PC; California Grand Theft Auto Law; and California "Grand Theft" Law Penal Code 487 PC.

1. Legal Definition of Auto Burglary in California

The legal definition of auto burglary revolves around two main facts (also known as "elements of the crime"). You are not guilty of California auto burglary unless the following elements are true:

  1. You entered a locked vehicle, and
  2. When you entered the vehicle, you intended to commit a California felony OR the crime of California petty theft.9
Img-auto-burglary-pick

Let's take a better look at some of the terms in these elements in order to better understand the legal definition of vehicular burglary.

Entering a "locked" vehicle

California Penal Code 459 PC specifically states that the doors to the car (or trunk) must be locked. Therefore, you must alter the car's physical condition...breaking into it somehow...to be guilty of the offense of burglary of an automobile.10

So whether the doors to the vehicle were locked is an important element of an auto burglary charge. If the trunk was locked and a defendant is alleged to have stolen something from the trunk, that counts as a locked car as well.11

Here are some actions that can count as breaking into a locked car for purposes of California's auto burglary statute:

  • smashing the window of a locked car in order to enter it,
  • reaching through an open car window to unlock its door without the owner's permission, and
  • using a screwdriver to open a locked car trunk.12
Example: Charles is caught inside a car that does not belong to him, attempting to steal some tools inside the car. There are no signs of forced entry. However, the car's owner testifies that he always locks his car. This is enough evidence to potentially prove that Charles did break into a locked car...and thus to convict Charles of auto burglary.13

"Entering" a vehicle

You "enter" an automobile if any part of your body goes inside of it. You also are considered to have entered a vehicle if some object under your control enters it.14

In other words, you do not actually have to open the door and get your entire body into the vehicle to commit auto burglary...reaching in through a window, or inserting an object, can count.

Example: On a hot day, Bart comes across a parked car that is locked, but with the windows slightly open to keep the car cool. The car's owner has left their wallet on the driver's seat.
Bart straightens a coat hanger to make a tool that he can slip inside the car window and use to grasp the wallet. He inserts the tool into the window and successfully grabs the wallet, which he then pulls up and removes from the car.
Bart may have just committed the crime of auto burglary...even though he didn't actually enter the car.
Example: Karl and several friends steal the headlights off of a parked car. Even though they entered the headlamp housing to get the headlights, they did not enter the interior of the car...and so are not guilty of auto burglary.15

Intending to commit a California felony or theft

A key part of the legal definition of burglary of an automobile under California law is intent to commit a California California felony or theft.16 California felonies include crimes such as:

  • Grand theft auto...that is, stealing the car you are breaking into,
  • Grand theft...that is, stealing something inside the car worth more than $950 (like a stereo or valuable personal possessions), or
  • Kidnapping...if, for example, you intended to abduct a child or adult who was locked inside the car.

In addition to intent to commit a California felony, intent to commit the California misdemeanor crime of petty theft can also meet the definition of auto burglary.17Petty theft is defined as stealing something with a value of $950 or less.18

As we discussed above, if you simply enter someone else's locked car without intent to steal something or commit another kind of California felony...you did not commit the crime of auto burglary.19

However, to be guilty of auto burglary, you do not need to actually have committed a felony or theft. All that matters is that you enter a car with the intent to commit a felony or theft.20

Example: Let's take Bart in our earlier example. Let's say that as soon as he gets his homemade tool through the car's window, he realizes that there's no way he's going to succeed getting the wallet out. So he gives up and walks away.
Bart still may face an auto burglary charge. He did "enter" the car intending to commit theft...even if he didn't actually succeed in doing so.
Img-auto-burglary-breakin
2. What Are the Penalties for California
Auto Burglary?

In almost all cases, California auto burglary is a form of so-called "second-degree"...that is, less serious...burglary .21

Second-degree burglary is a wobbler . . . which means that, depending on (1) the circumstances of the offense, and (2) your criminal history, you could be charged with California auto burglary as either

  1. a misdemeanor, or
  2. a felony.

If you are convicted of California auto burglary as a misdemeanor, you may face up to one (1) year in a county jail.22

If you are convicted of California auto burglary as a felony, you may face a jail or prison term of sixteen (16) months, or two (2) or three (3) years.23

There is one exception to the general rule that auto burglary is a form of second-degree burglary. If you break into a "trailer coach" (like an RV) that is inhabited (meaning someone is living there) with the intent to commit a felony or theft, you may have committed first-degree burglary.24

The crime of burglary in an inhabited trailer coach is always a felony. The penalty will be two (2), four (4) or six (6) years in California state prison.25

3. What Are the Legal Defenses to California Auto Burglary Under Penal Code 459 PC?

Depending on the circumstances of your particular case, there are a variety of common legal defenses to auto burglary charges that your California auto burglary defense lawyer could present on your behalf.

Some of these are:

The vehicle wasn't locked

One of the most effective defenses to a California auto burglary charge is that the doors or trunk of the car weren't locked.

This defense is critical, since...as we discussed above...the doors or trunk must be locked for the crime of burglary of an automobile to take place.26

For example, even if you "popped" a locked trunk by opening an unlocked door and pulling the latch, you may not be guilty of auto burglary.

The question of whether a car was locked...and the evidence used to prove that it was or wasn't...can be surprisingly technical. It bears repeating that a California auto burglary arrest does not necessarily have to result in a California auto burglary conviction!

You didn't intend to commit a felony

If you didn't have the intent to steal the car or its contents...or to commit another felony once inside the car...you are not criminally liable for California auto burglary.27

According to San Diego criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse28 :

"The legal defense of lack of intent can be especially useful in a vehicular burglary case if you didn't actually accomplish the felony or theft you are accused of intending. Now, the alleged intended theft or other felony doesn't need to be successful in order for you to be convicted of this offense. That said... it is certainly more difficult for the prosecution to prove that you are guilty of this offense if that crime wasn't completed."

Insufficient evidence

The legal defense of insufficient evidence is related to the other two defenses we just described.

Under California law, a jury should not convict you of auto burglary unless the prosecutor can show...beyond a reasonable doubt...that your actions met the legal definition of burglary of an automobile.

Img-elder-abuse-scale

Let's say there is some circumstantial evidence that you intended steal something inside a car you broke into...but there is no evidence proving that fact beyond a reasonable doubt. In that case, a California criminal defense attorney may help you argue that the evidence is insufficient to warrant a conviction.

4. Related Offenses

4.1. Burglary

As we have mentioned above, California auto burglary is a subset of California burglary laws (Penal Code 459 PC). The same burglary statute, Penal Code 459 PC, defines both regular burglary and auto burglary.

The broader crime of burglary is defined as entering any building or residence (including houses, apartments, shops, outbuildings, tents, and boats...as well as cars) with the intent of committing a theft or other felony.29

As a general rule, burglary is considered first-degree burglary if the structure that is entered is inhabited...that is, someone is living there. If that is not the case (as in the vast majority of auto burglary cases)...then it is second-degree burglary.30

First-degree burglary is always a felony; the penalty will two (2), four (4) or six (6) years in California state prison.31

Second-degree burglary is a wobbler, and the penalty may be probation with up to one (1) year in county jail, or else up to three (3) years in prison.32

4.2. Grand theft auto

California grand theft auto (or "GTA") law prohibits taking another person's car without their permission.33

Perhaps the most obvious reason someone would break into a car would be to steal the car. So it's not surprising that the crime of grand theft auto is often charged along with the crime of auto burglary. The idea is that the defendant committed auto burglary by breaking into the car in order to steal it...and then committed grand theft auto when s/he actually stole the car.

Grand theft auto is a wobbler offense.34 Usually, it is more likely to be prosecuted as a felony if the prosecutor believes you intended to keep the car permanently...and more likely to be prosecuted as a misdemeanor if the allegation is that you were just taking the car temporarily ("joyriding").

4.3. Grand theft / petty theft

The other crime that is most frequently charged along with burglary of an automobile is theft-either grand theft (California Penal Code 487 PC) or petty theft.

Grand theft under Penal Code 487 PC is defined as stealing someone else's property when that property is EITHER

  1. worth $950 or more,
  2. taken directly from the possession of the owner, OR
  3. in one of several special categories, including
a. automobiles, and
b. firearms.35

Grand theft is a wobbler in California.36

Any other kind of theft is petty theft, which is a misdemeanor.37

If the allegation is that you broke into someone's car in order to steal...not the car itself...but personal property contained in the car, such as

  • stereo equipment,
  • a purse or wallet, or
  • a laptop computer or cell phone,

you are likely to be charged with BOTH

  1. auto burglary, AND
  2. grand theft or petty theft (depending on the type and value of the property stolen).
Img-auto-burglary-stereo

Note that auto burglary is a more serious crime than petty theft. An accompanying auto burglary charge can turn what would otherwise be a misdemeanor charge (for petty theft) into a potential felony.

Thus, if you are in this situation, it is crucial to find a lawyer who has particular experience in California auto burglary charges...in the hopes of getting at least that charge reduced or dismissed.

4.4. Vehicle tampering

The California crime of vehicle tampering consists of

  • willfully injuring or tampering with any vehicle or its contents, or
  • breaking or removing any part of a vehicle without the owner's consent.38

Vehicle tampering is a misdemeanor.39

Because vehicle tampering is a less serious crime than auto burglary, it is a useful potential charge reduction. For example, if the prosecution can prove that you broke into a vehicle...but has little hard evidence that you intended to commit a theft or felony once inside...your attorney may be able to negotiate to reduce the charges from auto burglary to vehicle tampering.

Call Us for Help...
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If you or loved one is charged with Penal Code 459 burglary and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

To learn more about the Nevada crime of burglary (including auto burglary), you may visit our page on the Nevada crime of burglary.

Legal References:

1 California Penal Code 459 PC - Definition [of auto burglary]. ("Every person who enters any house, room, apartment, tenement, shop, warehouse, store, mill, barn, stable, outhouse or other building, tent, vessel, as defined in Section 21 of the Harbors and Navigation Code, floating home, as defined in subdivision (d) of Section 18075.55 of the Health and Safety Code, railroad car, locked or sealed cargo container, whether or not mounted on a vehicle, trailer coach, as defined in Section 635 of the Vehicle Code, any house car, as defined in Section 362 of the Vehicle Code, inhabited camper, as defined in Section 243 of the Vehicle Code, vehicle as defined by the Vehicle Code, when the doors are locked, aircraft as defined by Section 21012 of the Public Utilities Code, or mine or any underground portion thereof, with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony is guilty of burglary [including auto burglary].")

2 See same, Definition of auto burglary.

3 See same, Definition of auto burglary.

4 See same, Definition of auto burglary.

5 Penal Code 460 PC - Degrees [of burglary]. ("(a) Every burglary of an inhabited dwelling house, vessel, as defined in the Harbors and Navigation Code, which is inhabited and designed for habitation, floating home, as defined in subdivision (d) of Section 18075.55 of the Health and Safety Code, or trailer coach, as defined by the Vehicle Code, or the inhabited portion of any other building, is burglary of the first degree. (b) All other kinds of burglary are of the second degree.")

6Penal Code 461 PC - Punishment [for auto burglary]. ("Burglary is punishable as follows: (a) Burglary in the first degree: by imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or six years. (b) Burglary in the second degree: by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year or imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.")

7 See same, Punishment for auto burglary.

8 See same, Punishment for auto burglary.

See also Penal Code 1170(h)(1) PC - Determinate sentencing. ("(h)(1) Except as provided in paragraph (3), a felony punishable pursuant to this subdivision where the term is not specified in the underlying offense shall be punishable by a term of imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, or two or three years.")

9 Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions ("CALCRIM") 1700 - [Auto] Burglary. ("To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that: 1 The defendant entered (a/an) (building/room within a building/locked vehicle/ <insert other statutory target>); AND 2 When (he/she) entered (a/an) (building/room within the building/locked vehicle/ <insert other statutory target>), (he/she) intended to commit (theft/ [or] <insert one or more felonies>).")

10 See Penal Code 459 PC, Definition of auto burglary, endnote 1, above.

11 People v. Toomes, (1957) 148 Cal.App.2d 465, 466. ("It is apparent that that purpose could not be adequately accomplished by denouncing as a felony [auto burglary] entry by the breaking or opening of locks of the side doors without also making it an equally serious offense to enter a locked trunk compartment for the purpose of committing theft. ")

12 See same. See also In re Young K., (1996) 49 Cal.App.4thth 861 ("The requirement of locking as an element of vehicular burglary has been interpreted to mean "that where a defendant 'used no pressure,' 'broke no seal,' and 'disengaged no mechanism that could reasonably be called a lock,' he is not guilty of auto burglary.")

13 In re Charles G., (1979) 95 Cal.App.3d 62 (Held that testimony from the car's owner that it was his habit to lock his car was sufficient to sustain requirement that the doors to the vehicle were locked.)

14 CALCRIM 1700 - Auto burglary. ("[Under the law of burglary, a person enters a building if some part of his or her body [or some object under his or her control] penetrates the area inside the building's outer boundary.]")

15 In re Young K., (1996) 49 Cal.App.4th 861, 862-63. ("Young K. drove the get-away car for two friends who removed the headlights from a parked car. This resulted in a petition alleging that Young had committed vehicular burglary (Pen.Code, § 459),FN1 receiving stolen property (§ 496, subd. (a)), and misdemeanor auto tampering ( Veh.Code, § 10852). The petition was sustained and Young appeals, contending that "entry into the headlamp housings of an automobile to steal its headlamps" is not an "entry into a vehicle" within the meaning of section 459. We agree.")

16 CALCRIM 1700 - Auto burglary. ("("To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that: 1 The defendant entered (a/an) (building/room within a building/locked vehicle/ <insert other statutory target>); AND 2 When (he/she) entered (a/an) (building/room within the building/locked vehicle/ <insert other statutory target>), (he/she) intended to commit (theft/ [or] <insert one or more felonies>).")

17 Penal Code 459 PC, Definition of auto burglary, endnote 1, above.

18 Penal Code 488 PC - Petty theft defined.

19 CALCRIM 1700 - Auto burglary.

20 See same, Auto burglary.

21 Penal Code 460 PC - Degrees [of burglary]. ("(a) Every burglary of an inhabited dwelling house, vessel, as defined in the Harbors and Navigation Code, which is inhabited and designed for habitation, floating home, as defined in subdivision (d) of Section 18075.55 of the Health and Safety Code, or trailer coach, as defined by the Vehicle Code, or the inhabited portion of any other building, is burglary of the first degree. (b) All other kinds of burglary -including auto burglary) are of the second degree.")

22 Penal Code 461 PC - Punishment [for auto burglary]. ("Burglary is punishable as follows: (a) Burglary in the first degree: by imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or six years. (b) Burglary in the second degree: by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year or imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.")

23 See same, Punishment for auto burglary.

See also Penal Code 1170(h)(1) PC - Determinate sentencing. ("(h)(1) Except as provided in paragraph (3), a felony punishable pursuant to this subdivision where the term is not specified in the underlying offense shall be punishable by a term of imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, or two or three years.")

24 Penal Code 460 PC - Degrees [of burglary]. ("(a) Every burglary of an inhabited dwelling house, vessel, as defined in the Harbors and Navigation Code, which is inhabited and designed for habitation, floating home, as defined in subdivision (d) of Section 18075.55 of the Health and Safety Code, or trailer coach, as defined by the Vehicle Code, or the inhabited portion of any other building, is burglary of the first degree. (b) All other kinds of burglary [including auto burglary] are of the second degree.")

25 Penal Code 461 PC - Punishment [for auto burglary]. ("Burglary is punishable as follows: (a) Burglary in the first degree: by imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or six years. (b) Burglary in the second degree: by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year or imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.")

26 CALCRIM 1700 - Auto burglary. ("("To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that: 1 The defendant entered (a/an) (building/room within a building/locked vehicle/ <insert other statutory target>); AND 2 When (he/she) entered (a/an) (building/room within the building/locked vehicle/ <insert other statutory target>), (he/she) intended to commit (theft/ [or] <insert one or more felonies>).")

27 See same, Auto burglary.

28 San Diego criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse is the founder and Managing Attorney of Shouse Law Group. He served five years in the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, prosecuting more than 60 criminal trials with an astonishing 96% success rate in felony jury trials to verdict. Now, Mr. Shouse defends clients accused of crimes ranging from DUI and drug charges to complex, high-profile murders.

29 Penal Code 459 PC, Definition of burglary [including auto burglary].

30 Penal Code 460 PC, Degrees of burglary [including auto burglary].

31 Penal Code 461 PC - Punishment for burglary [including auto burglary]. ("Burglary is punishable as follows: (a) Burglary in the first degree: by imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or six years. (b) Burglary in the second degree: by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year or imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.")

32 See same, punishment for burglary [including auto burglary].

33 Penal Code 487 PC - Grand theft defined. ("Grand theft is theft committed in any of the following cases: . . . d) When the property taken is any of the following: (1) An automobile [possibly in connection with auto burglary], horse, mare, gelding, any bovine animal, any caprine animal, mule, jack, jenny, sheep, lamb, hog, sow, boar, gilt, barrow, or pig.")

See also Vehicle Code 10851 VC - Theft and unlawful driving or taking of a vehicle [may be charged along with auto burglary]. ("a) Any person who drives or takes a vehicle not his or her own, without the consent of the owner thereof, and with intent either to permanently or temporarily deprive the owner thereof of his or her title to or possession of the vehicle, whether with or without intent to steal the vehicle, or any person who is a party or an accessory to or an accomplice in the driving or unauthorized taking or stealing, is guilty of a public offense and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year or pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code or by a fine of not more than five thousand dollars ($5,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment.")

34 See same. See also Penal Code 489 PC - Grand theft; punishment.

35 Penal Code 487 PC - Grand theft [may be charged along with auto burglary] defined.

36 Penal Code 489 PC - Grand theft [may be charged along with auto burglary]; punishment.

37 Penal Code 488 PCC - Petty theft [may be charged along with auto burglary] defined.

38 Vehicle Code 10852 VC - Vehicle tampering [may be charged instead of auto burglary].

39 Vehicle Code 40000.9 - Misdemeanors.

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