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Is it a crime to break into an unlocked car in California?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Jun 17, 2019 | 0 Comments

man looking into a parked car with flashlight

It is not considered “breaking and entering” under the burglary laws of California for a person to enter an unlocked car.

However, if a person enters a car through an unlocked door without the owner's consent, that person could be charged with tampering with a vehicle.

California Vehicle Code section 10852 states that no person shall, without the owner's consent:

  • willfully injure or tamper with any vehicle,
  • or the contents thereof,
  • or break or remove any part of a vehicle.

Tampering is defined as conduct interfering with the ownership of the vehicle. Thus, Vehicle Code 10852 makes it a crime to enter someone else's vehicle, even if the car door is unlocked.

Tampering with a vehicle is a misdemeanor punishable by:

  • up to six months in county jail,
  • a $1,000 fine, or
  • both jail and a fine.

The more serious crime of auto burglary can only be charged under Penal Code 459 when a person enters a LOCKED VEHICLE with the:

  • intent to commit a theft, or
  • intent to commit any felony.

Auto burglary is a “wobbler” under California law, which means that it may be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. If filed as a felony, the punishment could be up to:

  • 3 years state prison and a $10,000 fine.

If filed as a misdemeanor, the punishment could be up to:

  • One-year county jail and a $1,000 fine.

Defenses to a charge of tampering with a vehicle or auto burglary may include:

  • Mistake,
  • The vehicle was unlocked,
  • There was no intent to commit a theft or a felony,
  • Insufficient evidence.

Is it a crime to enter an unlocked vehicle in California?

It depends on the accused person's intent, and their actions inside the vehicle.

A person who enters an unlocked vehicle without the owner's consent may be accused of vehicle tampering because it interferes with, and is conduct inconsistent with, ownership of the vehicle. People v. Mooney (1983) 145 Cal. App. 3d 502.

Vehicle Code section 10852 states that no person shall, without the owner's consent:

  • willfully injure or tamper with any vehicle,
  • or the contents thereof,
  • or break or remove any part of a vehicle.

Please note that it is also a misdemeanor under Vehicle Code 10853 for a person to:

  • climb into or onto a vehicle
  • with the intent to commit any malicious mischief, injury, or other crime.

What is the potential punishment for a person charged with vehicle tampering?

The crime of vehicle tampering can only be charged as a misdemeanor in California. The punishment is:

  • up to six months in county jail,
  • a $1,000 fine,
  • both jail and a fine.

Please note that there are other charges that could be filed AFTER someone unlawfully enters an unlocked vehicle, depending on their actions. Those felonies could include:

  • grand theft,
  • felony vandalism, and
  • auto theft.

Has a bill been introduced in California making it a felony to enter a vehicle to commit a theft?

Yes. A bill is currently pending in the California state senate (SB23) that would make it a new crime to:

  • forcibly enter a vehicle
  • with the intent to commit a theft.

Pleases note that SB23 does not specifically require LOCKED DOORS, but forcible entry of a vehicle. The required force could be any of the following:

  • Using a tool or device that manipulates the locking mechanism,
  • Using an electronic device such as a signal extender,
  • breaking a window,
  • cutting a convertible top,
  • punching a lock,
  • prying open a door.

According to California state legislators, the policy behind SB23 is:

  • to allow prosecutors to establish through circumstantial evidence of broken windows, doors, and lock mechanisms,
  • that entry was made by force.

This would prevent requiring victims, often tourists who live far away, to come to court to testify that they had locked the car doors.

The new crime proposed under SB23 would have the same punishment as auto burglary and could be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

What are possible defenses to auto tampering or auto burglary in California?

There are various defenses to a charge of tampering with a vehicle or auto burglary. They include:

  • Mistake,
  • The vehicle was unlocked,
  • There was no intent to commit a theft or a felony,
  • Insufficient evidence
  • intoxication.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

Southern California DUI Defense attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT).

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