California Vehicle Code § 10851 VC makes it a crime to take or drive someone else’s vehicle without the person’s consent. Commonly referred to as joyriding, this offense can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
|Misdemeanor joyriding penalties || |
|Felony joyriding penalties || |
Note that police officers commonly write citations as
- 10851 VC or as
- 10851 CVC.
These are short for the California Vehicle Code.
- Hotwiring a neighbor’s car in order to make it to the airport on time to catch a flight
- While house-sitting for a friend, “borrowing” the friend’s car (with no consent)
- Without permission to do so, taking a parent’s car out to go on a date
Here at Shouse Law Group, we have represented literally thousands of people facing auto-related charges, including joyriding. In our experience, the following three legal defenses have proven very persuasive with prosecutors, juries, and judges.
- You had a claim of right over the vehicle;
- You drove or took a vehicle with the owner’s consent; or
- You acted under duress.
Note that a separate statute, Penal Code 499b, makes it illegal to “joyride” a bike or vessel.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will explain the following in this article:
- 1. What does it mean to drive or take a vehicle without consent?
- 2. How can I defend against 10851 VC charges?
- 3. What are the consequences of a conviction?
- 4. What other crimes tend to get charged together with joyriding?
1. What does it mean to drive or take a vehicle without consent?
A prosecutor must prove three elements to show you are guilty under Vehicle Code 10851.
These include proving that:
- You drove or took someone else’s vehicle;
- The owner of the vehicle did not consent to the driving or taking; and,
- You acted with the intent to deny the vehicle’s owner of possession of the vehicle for any period of time.1
Please note that with regards to the third element, you are still guilty of this section no matter if you intend to deny possession:
- Temporarily; or
This means you violate the law even if you did not intend to steal the car permanently. “Borrowing” a motor vehicle is sufficient for an accusation of joyriding.
Under PC 10851, the determination as to whether you had “the intent to deny” is based upon the specific facts of a case. But, note that the mere possession of a car, under suspicious circumstances, is usually enough to prove intent.3
2. How can I defend against 10851 VC charges?
In our experience, the best arguments for raising a reasonable doubt with regard to joyriding charges is to show that:
2.1. You had a claim of right to the vehicle
In this particular context, a claim of right simply means that you rightfully owned the car that you drove or took. It is not a violation of this section if you have a claim of right to (that is, you owned) the vehicle involved.
We typically raise this defense when it is unclear as to whose name a car’s title is under. As long as there is a reasonable doubt as to ownership, the joyriding charges should not stand.
2.2. The owner consented to you driving the vehicle
Recall that an element of the crime of joyriding is that a car’s owner must not have consented to you driving or taking the car. A solid defense, therefore, is for you to show that you had the vehicle owner’s consent to drive it.
Please note, though, that consent must be given for the specific facts of a given case. This section expressly states that consent cannot: Be presumed or implied because of the owner’s consent on a previous occasion.4
Therefore, we gather all the available evidence indicating the owner consented. Typically such evidence includes text messages, voicemails, emails, eyewitness testimony, or surveillance footage.
2.3. You acted under duress
To best understand this defense, think of a case where a bank robber holds a pedestrian at gunpoint and tells him to get into a running car and drive them away.
Duress is a legal defense in which an accused basically says: “He made me do it.” The defense applies to the very limited situation in which you commit a crime (here, unlawfully taking a car), because somebody threatened to kill you if the crime was not committed.
3. What are the consequences of a conviction?
Under Vehicle Code 10851 VC, the crime of unlawfully taking or driving of a vehicle is a wobbler offense. This means it can be punished as either a California misdemeanor or a felony.
If charged as a misdemeanor, the crime is punishable by:
- Imprisonment in a county jail for up to one year; and/or,
- A fine of up to $5,000.5
If prosecuted as a felony charge, the crime is punishable by a state prison term of:
- 16 months;
- Two years; or,
- Three years.6
These penalties increase if you:
- drive or take an ambulance, law enforcement vehicle, or fire department vehicle on an emergency call7; or,
- Have one or more prior felony convictions of either joyriding or felony grand theft8.
In these circumstances, you may receive a fine of up to $10,000, and/or, imprisonment in a county jail for:
- Two years;
- Three years; or,
- Four years.9
When clients contact us following a joyriding arrest, we can often engage in a pre-file intervention in attempt to persuade prosecutors to bring misdemeanor instead of felony charges. In some cases, we even convince the state not to bring charges at all due to lack of incriminating evidence.
4. What other crimes tend to get charged together with joyriding?
There are four related offenses to joyriding, under VC 10851. These are:
- Grand theft auto – PC 487(d)(1)
- Grand theft – PC 487
- Auto burglary – PC 459
- Malicious mischief to a vehicle – VC 10853
- California Vehicle Code 10851(a) VC. The language of the code section reads as follows:
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.See also People v. Bullard (2020) 9 Cal. 5th 94.
- See same. Contrast this with the California crime of grand theft auto, where an accused is guilty only if he intended to steal a car permanently or for a long enough period of time to deprive the owner of the significant value of enjoyment of it.
- People v. Clifton (1985) 171 Cal. App. 3d 195.
- California Vehicle Code section 10851(c).
- Same at Section (a).
- See same. See also People v. Lara (2019) 6 Cal. 5th 1128.
- VC 10851(b). Note that in these cases a prosecutor, to get a conviction, must prove that the defendant knew a vehicle was an ambulance, a police vehicle, or a fire department vehicle.
- Same. See PC 666.5.
- See same. See VC 10851(b).
- PC 487(d)(1); “CALCRIM” 1820.
- PC 487(d)(1); and, PC 1170(h)(1).
- PC 484. See People v. Cratty (1999) 77 Cal.App.4th 98.
- PC 487.
- PC 487 and 489.
- PC 459.
- PC 460.
- PC 461.
- See same.