California Law on "Operating a Chop Shop”
California Vehicle Code 10801

California Vehicle Code 10801 VC makes it a crime to knowingly own or operate a “chop shop.”

What is a “chop shop”?

A “chop shop” is anyplace where someone knowingly:

  • alters, takes apart or stores a stolen motor vehicle or vehicle part,
  • for the purpose of selling or disposing of it, or hiding its identity.1

Penalties for operating a chop shop

Operating a chop shop is a California wobbler offense. It can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor, in the prosecutor's discretion.

If charged as a felony, the penalties for operating a California chop shop include:

  • up to four years in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $50,000.2

If charged as a misdemeanor, the penalty is:

  • up to one year in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $1,000.3

Defenses to charges of operating a California chop shop

Legal defenses to Vehicle Code 10801 charges include (but are not limited to):

  • The business was not a “chop shop”
  • You didn't operate the chop shop
  • You didn't know the vehicle or parts were stolen
  • You were just repairing the vehicle
  • You didn't know that the vehicle or parts were intended for sale
  • The chop shop was discovered during an illegal search

Our firm's lawyers include former prosecutors and cops. We now use our inside knowledge of the system to defend people accused of California crimes.

To help you better understand the legal nuances of operating a chop shop, our California criminal defense attorneys discuss the following, below:

  1. The legal definition of a California “chop shop”
  2. Elements of the crime of operating a chop shop
    1. “Operating” a chop shop
    2. “Knowingly” operating a chop shop
  3. Defenses to operating a chop shop
  4. Penalties for operating a chop shop
  5. Warrantless inspections of auto shops
  6. Related offenses
    1. Penal Code 496 PC -- receiving stolen property
    2. Vehicle Code 10802 VC -- tampering with a VIN with intent to misrepresent
    3. Vehicle Code 10750 VC – misdemeanor VIN tampering
    4. Vehicle Code 10803 VC – buying or possessing vehicles with tampered VINs
    5. Vehicle Code 4463 VC – fraudulent vehicle registration
Chopshop1-optimized

1. The legal definition of a California “chop shop”

California Vehicle Code 250 VC defines a “chop shop” as:

  1. a building, lot, or other premises;
  2. where anyone has been
    • altering,
    • destroying,
    • disassembling,
    • dismantling,
    • reassembling, or
    • storing
  3. any motor vehicle or motor vehicle part
  4. obtained by
    • theft,
    • fraud, or
    • conspiracy;
  5. so as to:
    • alter,
    • counterfeit,
    • deface,
    • destroy,
    • disguise,
    • falsify,
    • forge,
    • obliterate, or
    • remove the identity (including the vehicle identification number) of such motor vehicle or part;
  6. for the purpose of:
    • misrepresenting the identity, or preventing identification, of the motor vehicle or part, or
    • selling or disposing the motor vehicle or part.4

2. Elements of the crime of operating a chop shop

To prove you guilty of violating California Vehicle Code 10801, the prosecutor must prove that:

  1. You knowingly and intentionally operated a chop shop;
  2. You knew the vehicle or vehicle part was obtained by theft, fraud or conspiracy to defraud; AND
  3. You knew that the vehicle or part was obtained in order to:
    • Sell or dispose of the vehicle or part, OR
    • Alter, disguise, or remove it so as to misrepresent its identity or prevent its identification.5

2.1 “Operating” a chop shop

It is not necessary for you to own or supervise operations at a chop shop in order for you to be guilty under California Vehicle Code 10801 VC.

It is enough that you were actively involved in the chop shop's operation.6

Nor is it necessary that the chop shop be in planned or continuous operation.7

2.2 “Knowingly” operating a chop shop

California Vehicle Code 10801 VC requires that you knew that:

  • You were involved in a chop shop, AND
  • The vehicle or vehicle part was not lawfully obtained, AND
  • You knew the vehicle part was obtained in order to disguise its identity or unlawfully sell it.8

Proving what you knew can be difficult for the prosecutor. Usually he/she must rely on circumstantial evidence. A jury can convict you if the “totality” of such evidence establishes your guilt.

Example: The police observe Jaime take part in an auto theft. They obtain a warrant to search Jaime's apartment, which is located over a suspected chop shop. They find several driver's licenses with Jaime's picture, all with different names. They also find numerous California DMV change of ownership documents.

In Jaime's living room, the police find a key to a shed out back. The shed contains tools used for altering vehicle identification number (“VIN”) tags. Taken together, the evidence is sufficient to find Jaime guilty of operating a chop shop.9

Chopshop3

3. Defenses to operating a chop shop

Because so much knowledge is required to prove you guilty of operating a chop shop, there are many possible defenses. Here are just a few:

  • The business was not a “chop shop”
    Example: Adam owns an auto repair business. Unbeknownst to him, some of his employees are stealing parts from the vehicles and replacing them with cheap-knock off parts. They then sell the stolen parts for more money. Because Adam doesn't know they are doing this, he is not guilty of operating a chop shop.
  • You didn't operate the chop shop
    Example: Brian works on weekends as a gopher for a chop shop. He gets coffee and lunch for other people, but doesn't work on any of the cars. Because he is not an active participant in the chop shop's operations, Brian is probably not guilty of “operating” a chop shop.
  • You didn't know the vehicle or parts were stolen
    Example: Joanna owns a custom auto body shop. She doesn't know that some of the cars are brought in by an auto theft ring looking to change the cars' appearance. Even though Joanna completely changes the cars, because she doesn't know they are stolen, she isn't guilty of operating a chop shop.
  • You were just repairing the vehicle
    Example: Edith works as a mechanic. Some of the cars she repairs have been stolen and intended for resale. However, since she doesn't know they are stolen, and she isn't altering them or trying to hide their identity in any way, Edith doesn't meet the definition of operating a chop shop.
  • You didn't know that the vehicle or parts were intended for sale
    Example: Frank works in an auto repair shop. One day the owner has Frank remove some parts from a couple of the cars and replace them with cheaper knock-offs. Frank thinks the owner is using them to rebuild cars for the owner's personal use. Since he doesn't know the owner intends to sell the parts, Frank isn't guilty of operating a chop shop.
  • The chop shop was discovered during an illegal search
    Example: George stole a car, took it home, and dismantled it. An LAPD officer, acting on a tip from a neighbor, entered the garage without a warrant. When he found the car, he arrested George for operating a chop shop. Because the search was on private property and the officer didn't obtain a warrant, it was an illegal search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. George's California criminal defense attorney should be able to get George's case thrown out.

4. Penalties for operating a California chop shop

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California Vehicle Code 10801 is a wobbler offense. This means the prosecutor has the discretion to charge it as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

Factors the prosecutor may consider in deciding how to charge you may include:

  • How many vehicles or vehicle parts were involved;
  • The scope of the chop shop's operations;
  • The total monetary value of the damage; and
  • Your criminal history, if any.

As a misdemeanor, operating a chop shop carries a penalty of:

  • up to one year in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $1,000.10

As a felony, operating a chop shop can be punished by:

  • up to four years in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $50,000.11

Alternatively, the judge has the discretion to sentence you to:

If you are sentenced to probation, you may serve little to no jail time. But you will be subject to supervision and certain conditions. These conditions may include:

  • Regular meetings with a probation officer,
  • Payment of restitution to your victim(s),
  • Participation in individual or group therapy,
  • Performance of community service or community labor
  • Agreement to submit to searches of your person or property with or without a warrant, and/or
  • Compliance with orders not to associate with gang members.

If you violate any terms of your probation, the judge can order you to go to jail for up to the maximum sentence.

5. Warrantless inspections of auto shops

Chopshop2

California Vehicle Code 2805 PC permits law enforcement officers and investigators to inspect vehicles and auto shops without a search warrant.14

Such inspections do not violate the Fourth Amendment as long as:

  • They are for the purpose of locating stolen vehicles,15 and
  • They take place at a time, and in a manner, that minimally interferes with business operations.16

Vehicle Code 2805 does not allow law enforcement officers to enter purely private property without a search warrant. Warrantless searches are only permitted on premises in which cars are worked on as a business.17

6. Related offenses

6.1. Penal Code 496 PC-- receiving stolen property

Under California Penal Code 496 PC, receiving stolen property is a crime.18 In order for Penal Code 496 to apply, you must know that the property has been stolen.

Penal Code 496 PC is a wobbler offense. It may be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

If charged as a misdemeanor, penalties for receiving stolen property include:

  • up to one (1) year in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).19

If charged as a felony, Penal Code 496 can be punished by:

  • 16 months, two years or three years in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $10,000.20

In addition, regardless of whether you are charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, you face a possible civil suit by the owner of the stolen property for:

  • three times the amount of his/her actual damages, plus
  • his/her costs of the suit, including reasonable attorney's fees.21

You cannot be convicted of stealing stolen property and receiving that same property.22

You also can't be convicted for stealing stolen property and then operating a chop shop based on the same property. This is because receiving stolen property is a “lesser-included offense” of operating a chop shop as long as both charges are based on the same property.23

6.2. Vehicle Code 10802 VC -- tampering with a VIN with intent to misrepresent

California Vehicle Code 10802, tampering with a VIN, is another law aimed at “chop shop” activities. It punishes knowingly altering a vehicle identification number (VIN) if you do so:

  1. with the intent to misrepresent the identity of a vehicle or vehicle part,
  2. so that it can be sold, transferred, imported or exported.24

Vehicle Code 10802 is a California “wobbler” offense. If charged as a misdemeanor, it can be punished by:

  • up to one year in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $1,000.25

If charged as a felony, Vehicle Code 10802 carries a possible penalty of:

  • 16 months, or two or three years in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $25,000.26

6.3. Vehicle Code 10750 VC – misdemeanor VIN tampering

California Vehicle Code 10750 VC, intentionally altering or destroying a VIN, is similar to Vehicle Code 10802, except that the prosecutor does not need to prove that the vehicle or part was intended for sale.

Tampering with a VIN is a misdemeanor under Vehicle Code 10750. It can be punished by:

  • up to one year in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $1,000.27

6.4. Vehicle Code 10803 – buying or possessing vehicles with tampered VINs

Another law targeting chop shops is California Vehicle Code 10803 VC, buying or possessing vehicles with tampered VIN numbers.

You violate Vehicle Code 10803 VC when you buy or possess more than one vehicles (or parts from more than one vehicle) with altered VINs for the purpose of selling them.

Vehicle Code 10803 is a "wobbler" offense.

As a misdemeanor, it is punishable by:

  • up to one year in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $1,000.

As a felony, punishment depends on whether you possessed such vehicles or parts or you actually purchased them.

Possessing such vehicles or parts is punishable under Vehicle Code 10803(b).

As a felony, it can be punished by:

  • 16 months, or two or three years in county jail, and/or
  • by a fine of up to $30,000.28

Purchasing such vehicles or parts is punishable under Vehicle Code 10803(a).

As a felony, it can be punished by:

  • two, four, or six years in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $60,000.29

Vehicle Code 10803 does not apply to a motor vehicle scrap processor who legally processes a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part by crushing or compacting, provided the VIN is not removed during processing.30

6.5. Vehicle Code 4463 – fraudulent vehicle registration

It is a crime under California Vehicle Code 4463 VC, fraudulent vehicle registration, to intentionally interfere with:   a vehicle license plate, vehicle license stickers, or a California DMV registration card   to secure a financial gain or avoid paying DMV taxes and fees.   Acts that violate Vehicle Code 4463 VC include:

  1. Doing any of the following to a vehicle registration card or registration stickers:
    • altering,
    • forging,
    • counterfeiting, or
    • falsifying;

OR

2. Possessing a vehicle registration card or registration stickers which are:

    • fraudulently displayed,
    • blank,
    • incomplete,
    • cancelled,
    • suspended,
    • revoked,
    • altered,
    • forged,
    • counterfeit, or
    • false

OR

3. Publishing, passing, or attempting to pass as true and genuine a false, altered, forged, or counterfeited vehicle registration card or sticker.31

Vehicle Code 4463 VC is a wobbler offense. If charged as a misdemeanor, it is punishable by:

  • up to one year in a county jail, and
  • a fine of up to $1,000.32

If charged as a felony, the penalty is:

  • 16 months, or two or three years in county jail, and
  • a fine of up to $10,000.33

In addition, the California DMV may refuse to issue or renew a driver's license or registration if it believes you committed fraud in any application.

Call us for help...

 

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For more information about California chop shop laws, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our criminal defense attorneys, please don't hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group. Our California criminal law offices are located in and around Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

We also invite you to watch our Youtube video on Vehicle Code 10801 - Operating a Chop Shop

Legal references:

1 California Judicial Council Criminal Jury Instructions (CALCRIM) 1752:

A chop shop is a building, lot, or other place where:

  1. A person alters, destroys, takes apart, reassembles, or stores a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part;
  2. That person knows that the vehicle or part has been obtained by theft, fraud, or conspiracy to defraud; AND
  3. That person knows that the vehicle or part was obtained in order to either:
    a. Sell or dispose of the vehicle or part; OR
    b. Alter, counterfeit, deface, destroy, disguise, falsify, forge, obliterate, or remove the identity, including an identification number, of the vehicle or part, in order to misrepresent its identity or prevent its identification.

2 California Vehicle Code 10801 VC.  Any person who knowingly and intentionally owns or operates a chop shop is guilty of a public offense and, upon conviction, shall be punished by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code for two, three, or four years, or by a fine of not more than fifty thousand dollars ($50,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment, or by up to one year in the county jail, or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment.

3 Same.

4 California Vehicle Code 250 VC.  A chop shop is any building, lot, or other premises where any person has been engaged in altering, destroying, disassembling, dismantling, reassembling, or storing any motor vehicle or motor vehicle part known to be illegally obtained by theft, fraud, or conspiracy to defraud, in order to do either of the following:

(a) Alter, counterfeit, deface, destroy, disguise, falsify, forge, obliterate, or remove the identity, including the vehicle identification number, of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part, in order to misrepresent the identity of the motor vehicle or motor vehicle part, or to prevent the identification of the motor vehicle or motor vehicle part.

(b) Sell or dispose of the motor vehicle or motor vehicle part.

5 CALCRIM 1752:

The defendant is charged [in Count ] with owning or operating a chop shop [in violation of Vehicle Code section 10801].

To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that:

  1. The defendant knew that (he/she) (owned/ [or] operated) a chop shop; AND
  2. The defendant intentionally (owned/ [or] operated) the chop shop.

6 People v. Ramirez (2000) 79 Cal.App.4th 408, 94 Cal.Rptr.2d 76. (“Defendant had more than a “mere participation” in the operation as he suggests: he and one other individual were found to be residing in the residence where the chop shop operation was conducted; he was personally in possession of several of the documents related to change of title on the various cars and trucks; he had applied for and possessed various driver's licenses in different names; a set of keys found in the living room of the residence opened a shed at the rear of the house, which contained a bag of tools used for altering “VIN” tags; he was observed by officers to be involved in the auto theft and burglary during the days immediately preceding the search; and he had previously been found to be in possession of motor vehicle registration papers for numerous cars. We find there was sufficient evidence to demonstrate that defendant operated a chop shop within the common meaning of the term ‘operate.'”).

7 People v. Sanchez (2003) 113 Cal.App.4th 325, 6 Cal.Rptr.3d 271, review denied (“There is nothing in the language of the statutes to suggest the Legislature intended to include only conduct involving a planned, continuous use of a facility for purposes of dismantling stolen vehicles and dissemination of the vehicle components as part of an ongoing business operation.”).

8 See CALCRIM 1752, endnote 5.

9 Facts based on People v. Ramirez, endnote 6.

10 California Vehicle Code 10801 VC, endnote 2.

11 Same.

12 Penal Code 1203(a) PC

13 Same. See also Penal Code 1203 (b) (1)

14 California Vehicle Code 2805 VC: (a) For the purpose of locating stolen vehicles, (1) any member of the California Highway Patrol, or (2) a member of a city police department, a member of a county sheriff's office, or a district attorney investigator, whose primary responsibility is to conduct vehicle theft investigations, may inspect any vehicle of a type required to be registered under this code, or any identifiable vehicle component thereof, on a highway or in any public garage, repair shop, terminal, parking lot, new or used car lot, automobile dismantler's lot, vehicle shredding facility, vehicle leasing or rental lot, vehicle equipment rental yard, vehicle salvage pool, or other similar establishment, or any agricultural or construction work location where work is being actively performed, and may inspect the title or registration of vehicles, in order to establish the rightful ownership or possession of the vehicle or identifiable vehicle component.

As used in this subdivision, "identifiable vehicle component" means any component which can be distinguished from other similar components by a serial number or other unique distinguishing number, sign, or symbol.

15 Same.

16 California Vehicle Code 2805 (c) PC: Whenever possible, inspections conducted pursuant to subdivision (a) or (b) shall be conducted at a time and in a manner so as to minimize any interference with, or delay of, business operations.

See also:

People v. Woolsey (1979) 90 Cal.App.3d 994, 153 Cal.Rptr. 746 (“[R]egulation by city and stategovernment over automobile dismantlers is part of the continued effort by law enforcement to eliminate theft of cars and the profit associated with that illegal activity.”);

People v. Lopez (1981) 172 Cal.Rptr. 236, 116 Cal.App.3d 600, certiorari denied 102 S.Ct. 504,454 U.S. 964 (“California courts have upheld its validity on the ground that, properly construed, the section applies to searches made “under reasonable circumstances, within constitutional limitations. [citations]”); and

People v. Potter (2005) 128 Cal.App.4th 611, 27 Cal.Rptr.3d 289 (“Under the closely-regulated-industry exception, the owner of a heavily regulated business is deemed to be on notice that his business premises will be subject to periodic warrantless administrative searches by government agents pursuant to a statutory inspection scheme... Warrantless administrative searches are valid under the Fourth Amendment not because a business owner has no reasonable expectation of privacy from the public, but because the owner of a closely regulated business has no reasonable expectation of privacy from administrative inspections in furtherance of a valid regulatory scheme.”).

17 People v. Roman (1991) 227 Cal.App.3d 674, 278 Cal.Rptr. 44 (“The statute, by its own terms, does not authorize warrantless and unconsented to entry on property rented for private—as opposed to public—use… That defendants rented this enclosed space in a commercial building did not diminish their expectation of privacy or transform the rented premises into a public garage.”)

18 California Penal Code 496(a) PC

A principal in the actual theft of the property may be convicted pursuant to this section. However, no person may be convicted both pursuant to this section and of the theft of the same property.

19 Same.

20 Same.

21 California Penal Code 496(c) PC: Any person who has been injured by a violation of subdivision (a) or (b) may bring an action for three times the amount of actual damages, if any, sustained by the plaintiff, costs of suit, and reasonable attorney's fees.

22 See second paragraph of California Penal Code 496(a), endnote 18.

23 People v. King (2000) 96 Cal.Rptr.2d 817, 81 Cal.App.4th 472, review denied. (Receiving stolen property was a necessarily included offenses of running a chop shop where the stolen property alleged to have been received was the same property, i.e., stolen motor vehicles, that constituted the chop shop violation).

24 California Vehicle Code 10802 VC: Any person who knowingly alters, counterfeits, defaces, destroys, disguises, falsifies, forges, obliterates, or removes vehicle identification numbers, with the intent to misrepresent the identity or prevent the identification of motor vehicles or motor vehicle parts, for the purpose of sale, transfer, import, or export, is guilty of a public offense and, upon conviction, shall be punished by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code for 16 months, or two or three years, or by a fine of not more than twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment, or by up to one year in the county jail, or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment.

25 Same.

26 Same.

27 California Penal Code 19 PC.

28 California Vehicle Code 10803(b) VC

29 California Vehicle Code 10803 (a) VC

30 California Vehicle Code 10804 (a) VC: Section 10803 does not apply to a motor vehicle scrap processor who, in the normal legal course of business and in good faith, processes a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part by crushing, compacting, or other similar methods, if any vehicle identification number is not removed from the motor vehicle or motor vehicle part prior to or during the processing.

31 California Vehicle Code 4463(a) VC

32 Same.

33 Same.

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