Vehicle Code 10851
(Driving or Taking a Vehicle without the Owner’s Consent)

Vehicle Code 10851 VC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to drive or take someone else's vehicle without that person's consent. These cases also require that the offender have the specific intent to deny the vehicle's owner of possession of the vehicle.

A crime committed under VC 10851 is sometimes referred to as “joyriding.”

Examples of joyriding include:

  • Mark hotwires his neighbor's car in order to make it to the airport on time to catch a flight.
  • While house-sitting for a friend, Jenny “borrows” the friend's car (with no consent) to run errands.
  • Without permission to do so, John takes his parent's car out to go on a date.

Defenses

Luckily, there are several legal defenses that a person can raise if accused of a crime under Vehicle Code 10851. These include showing that an accused party:

  • Had a claim of right over the vehicle;
  • Drove or took a vehicle with the owner's consent; or
  • Acted under duress.

Penalties

A violation of California Vehicle Code 10851 VC is a type of wobbler offense, meaning that 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.

If charged as a felony, the crime is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for a term of up to three years.

Penalties under VC 10851 increase if an offender:

In these circumstances, a defendant may receive a jail term of up to four years and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

california driving vehicle without consent law driver having fun
California Vehicle Code 10851 VC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to drive or take someone else's vehicle without that person's consent.

1. The Legal Definition of Driving or Taking a Vehicle Without the Owner's Consent

A prosecutor must prove three elements to show that a person is guilty under Vehicle Code 10851. These include proving that:

  1. The defendant drove or took someone else's vehicle;
  2. The vehicle's owner did not consent to the driving or taking; and,
  3. The defendant 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, an offender is still guilty of violating VC 10851 no matter if he intends to deny possession:

  • Temporarily; or,
  • Permanently.2

This means a person violates the law even if he did not intend to permanently steal a car. “Borrowing” a vehicle is sufficient for an accusation of joyriding.

Under PC 10851, the determination as to whether a defendant 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. Legal Defenses to Vehicle Code 10851 Charges

A person accused under Vehicle 10851 can challenge the accusation by raising a legal defense. A good defense can often get a charge reduced or even dismissed. Please note, though, that it is critical for an accused to hire an attorney to get the most effective defense.

Three common defenses to VC 10851 accusations are:

  1. Claim of right;
  2. Owner's consent; and/or,
  3. Duress.

2.1. Claim of Right

In this particular context, a claim of right simply means that an accused rightfully owned the car that he drove or took. A person cannot commit a crime under Vehicle Code 10851 if he has a claim of right to (i.e., owned) the vehicle involved. This defense is often raised when it is unclear as to whose name a car's title is under.

2.2. Owner's Consent

Recall that an element to the crime of joyriding is that a car's owner must not have consented to the accused's driving or taking the car. A solid defense, therefore, is for a defendant to show that he 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. Vehicle Code 10851 expressly states that consent cannot:

Be presumed or implied because of the owner's consent on a previous occasion.4

2.3. 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 a person commits a crime (here, unlawfully taking a car), because somebody threatened to kill him if the crime was not committed.

behind bars jail driving without consent
If charged as a felony, the crime is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail

3. Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing

Under Vehicle Code 10851 VC, the crime of unlawfully taking or driving a car 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 charged as a felony, the crime is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for a term of:

  • 16 months;
  • Two years; or,
  • Three years.6

These penalties increase if an offender:

  • Drives or takes an ambulance, police vehicle, or fire department vehicle7; or,
  • Has one or more prior felony convictions of either joyriding or felony grand theft8.

In these circumstances, a defendant 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

4. Related Offenses

There are three crimes related to joyriding, under VC 10851. These are:

  1. Grand theft auto – PC 487(d)(1)
  2. Grand theft – PC 487
  3. Auto burglary – PC 459

4.1. Grand Theft Auto – PC 487(d)(1)

California Penal Code 487(d)(1) (grand theft auto) makes it a crime for a person to permanently take another's vehicle.

Under PC 487(d)(1), a prosecutor must prove several elements in order to successfully convict a defendant of grand theft auto (sometimes referred to as “GTA”). These include:

  1. The defendant took someone's car (other than his own);
  2. The car was worth more than $950 dollars;
  3. The defendant did not have permission from the owner to take the car;
  4. When he took the car, the defendant intended to either deprive the owner of it permanently, or, to take it away for a significant period of time; and,
  5. The defendant moved the car (even if only a very short distance) and kept it for a period of time (however brief).10

GTA is a wobbler offense, meaning it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. In practice, however, the crime typically leads to a felony that is punishable by a jail term of:

  • 16 months;
  • Two years; or,
  • Three years.11

4.2. Grand Theft – PC 487

The crime of theft under California law is defined as the unlawful taking of someone else's property.12

When the property taken is valued at more than $950, the theft is considered the California crime of grand theft under Penal Code 487 PC.13

In proving a grand theft charge, under PC 487, a prosecutor can show that a defendant committed theft by any of the following:

In most cases, the offense of grand theft in California is a wobbler, meaning it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

If charged as a misdemeanor, a defendant can get sentenced for up to one year in a county jail.

If charged with felony grand theft, a defendant can get sentenced to a jail term of either:

  • 16 months;
  • Two years; or,
  • Three years.14

4.3. Auto Burglary – PC 459

In California, the crime of auto burglary, per Penal Code 459, takes place when someone enters a locked automobile or its trunk, with the intent to either:

  1. Steal the car;
  2. Steal property contained in the car; or,
  3. Commit any other California felony inside the vehicle.15

California auto burglary is a form of so-called "second-degree" burglary.16

Second-degree burglary (including auto burglary, per PC 459) is a wobbler, meaning it can get charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

If charged as a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty is imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year.17

If charged as a felony, the maximum jail sentence is three years.18

4.4. Malicious Mischief to a Vehicle - VC 10853

Vehicle Code 10853 makes it a crime to engage in malicious mischief to a vehicle. This is defined as defacing, damaging or destroying a vehicle without the owner's consent. Vehicle Code 10853 is a misdemeanor. A conviction carries a sentence of up to 6 months in county jail.

Were you accused of driving or taking another person's vehicle without their consent in California? Call us for help…

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Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you or someone you know has been accused of joyriding, per Penal Code 10851, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LAWFIRM.

Legal References:

  1. California Vehicle Code 10851(a) VC.

  2. See same. Contrast this with 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 significant value of enjoyment of it.

  3. People v. Clifton (1985), 171 Cal. App. 3d 195.

  4. California Vehicle Code 10851(c) VC.

  5. California Vehicle Code 10851(a) VC.

  6. See same.

  7. California Vehicle Code 10851(b) VC. 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.

  8. California Vehicle Code 10851 VC.

  9. See same. See also California Vehicle Code 10851(b) VC.

  10. California Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC; and, Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions ("CALCRIM") 1800 - Theft [including grand theft auto] by Larceny (Pen. Code, § 484).

  11. California Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC; and, California Penal Code 1170(h)(1) PC.

  12. California Penal Code 484 PC.

  13. California Penal Code 487 PC.

  14. California Penal Code 487 PC; and, California Penal Code 489 PC.

  15. California Penal Code 459 PC.

  16. Penal Code 460 PC.

  17. Penal Code 461 PC.

  18. See same.

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