Federal Laws for "Carjacking" (18 U.S.C. § 2119)
Explained by Nevada Criminal Defense Attorneys

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A federal carjacking conviction can carry several years in prison even if no one gets hurt. A defendant may be found guilty even if he lacks actual intent to harm anybody.

This page provides a summary of the federal offense of carjacking in Nevada. Keep reading to learn what qualifies as carjacking, how our Nevada criminal defense attorneys fight carjacking allegations, and what penalties a court may impose.


The legal definition of "carjacking" in federal courts is when someone, "with the intent to cause death or serious bodily harm takes a motor vehicle that has been transported, shipped, or received in interstate or foreign commerce from the person or presence of another by force and violence or by intimidation, or attempts to do so."

In other words, carjacking under federal law is when someone forcefully takes an automobile with the intent to kill or severely injure the driver, passenger or anyone else who is in possession of the car and is present at the scene.

Intent requirement

A defendant may be convicted of carjacking in federal court only if he/she intended to kill or seriously injure. This includes defendants who had "conditional intent," which means that they only intended to kill or injure if the victim of the carjacking resisted. Tonopah NV criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse explains:

Example: Jim carjacks Sam in Nevada. Jim never intends to harm Sam because Sam relinquishes the car without a fight. The U.S. Marshals Service arrests Jim and discovers that he was carrying a gun during the carjacking. If a federal jury believes that Jim would have killed or seriously hurt Sam had Sam resisted, then they could find him guilty of carjacking.

Therefore it is possible for someone to be convicted of federal carjacking crimes in Nevada even if he/she had no "actual intent" to harm the victim . . . but only if the court finds that the defendant would have harmed the victim had the victim fought back.1

Force and presence requirements

The other necessary element of federal carjacking charges is that the defendant steals the car by force, violence or intimidation in the presence of another. Reno NV criminal defense attorney Michael Becker gives an illustration:

Example: John goes into a Henderson bar and threatens Max with a knife to give him his imported car. After Max refuses, John leaves Max in the bar and steals the car from a parking lot. If caught, John can be booked at the Henderson NV Jail for the Nevada crime of assault for threatening Max and for the Nevada crime of auto-theft for stealing the car but not for the federal crime of carjacking.

Here, Nevada federal carjacking law does not apply because John stole the car outside the presence of Max. It does not matter that John threatened Max with a knife because the threat occurred separately from the auto-theft.

Federal vs. State Carjacking Laws

Unlike federal law, Nevada state law does not have a carjacking statute. Instead, Nevada prosecutors bring a "cluster" of related charges that together amount to carjacking. These offenses include:

To learn more about state carjacking laws in Nevada, go to our article about the Nevada crime of carjacking.

Note that all federal carjacking cases in Nevada are heard in either the Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse in Las Vegas or the Bruce R. Thompson Federal Courthouse in Reno.


There are many possible defenses to allegations of federal carjacking in Nevada. Which ones would prove most effective obviously turn on the facts of the specific case. Below are three of the most common strategies that criminal defense attorneys may use:

  • Mistaken identity. Many carjackers wear masks to disguise themselves, and the carjacking is usually so quick and frenetic that victims and witnesses do not get a good look at the perpetrator. Therefore if the U.S. Attorney's Office can not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was the person who committed the alleged carjacking, then the case should be dismissed.
  • No intent to kill. A defendant may be liable for federal carjacking charges only if he/she had intent to kill or seriously injure the victim. So if a criminal defense attorney can show that the defendant lacked intent to cause harm or death even if the victim resisted the carjacking, then the defendant should not be convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 2119.
  • No interstate or foreign commerce. Nevada Federal Court has jurisdiction over carjacking cases only if the automobile in question was transported, shipped, or received in interstate or foreign commerce. If the defense attorney can show that interstate or foreign commerce was not implicated, then federal charges should be dropped. However, the defendant may still be prosecuted in state court.
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The punishment for violating 18 U.S.C. § 2119 in Nevada depends on whether any victims of the alleged carjacking were seriously injured or killed:

  • If the victim was unharmed or sustained minor injuries, the defendant will be ordered to pay a fine and/or serve up to fifteen (15) years in prison.
  • If the victim serious bodily injury, the defendant will be ordered to pay a fine and/or serve up to twenty-five (25) years in prison.
  • If the victim dies, the defendant will be ordered to pay a fine and/or serve a life sentence or be sentenced to capital punishment in Nevada.

Note that Nevada currently has no federal prison. Therefore, people serving time for federal offenses in Nevada are typically transferred to another state or incarcerated in Nevada State Prison, North Las Vegas Detention Center, or the
Washoe County Detention Center.

Accused of a crime? Call a lawyer . . . .

If you or someone you love is facing federal carjacking charges, please contact our Nevada federal criminal defense attorneys at 702-DEFENSE (702-333-3673) to discuss your matter for free. We will try to negotiate a charge reduction or dismissal so your record stays clean. Otherwise, we will zealously litigate the case at trial in pursuit of a full acquittal.

To learn about California Carjacking Laws (Penal Code 215C PC), go to our article on California Carjacking Laws (Penal Code 215C PC).

1U.S. v. Holloway, 526 U.S. 1 (1999).


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