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Arrests and criminal charges are serious situations that need immediate attention. In fact, with the sheer multitude of crimes written into statute, not everyone can truly know whether they have done something illegal. Further, in some cases, the crime charged may be a lot more severe than the individual himself/herself even expected.

Retaining the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney is essential to having a viable chance at defending criminal charges and mitigating the damage to his/her life. One such crime that many people do not truly understand is a carjacking, and, especially the distinction between a carjacking and automobile theft.

How Does California Law Define The Crime of Carjacking?

So, what is carjacking? Pursuant to California law, carjacking is defined as the taking of an automobile in the possession of another individual, from his/her person or immediate presence, against his/her will, with the intent to either permanently or temporarily deprive that individual of the use of the automobile, accomplished by means of force or fear. Additionally, even though the automobile may not be in an individual’s possession, if that individual is a passenger, and the aggressor does the same things in the sentence above, the aggressor may also be charged with carjacking.

is carjacking a felony

Is Carjacking a Felony in CA?

According to California Penal Code 215 PC, carjacking is a federal crime. Further, the law can impose severe penalties on an individual convicted of carjacking, including a “strike,” which falls under California’s “Three Strikes” law which can be enhanced depending on how the felon went about the carjacking. For instance, using a deadly weapon or causing injury to the victim can increase the severity of the penalties imposed.

What’s the Difference Between a Carjacking and Grand Theft Auto?

For the law to consider a crime to be a carjacking, an individual must take the vehicle using force or fear. However, if an individual steals a car that is unoccupied or when the owner is not in the immediate vicinity, the law considers the crime as grand theft auto or car theft.

How Does The Prosecutor Prove Carjacking?

To prove the accused is guilty of carjacking the prosecutor must show he/she took the vehicle against the will of the possessor of the car. Thus, to successfully prosecute the crime of carjacking, the prosecutor must provide evidence of the following:

  • The defendant took an automobile that was not his/hers;
  • The automobile was taken from the immediate presence of an individual in possession of the automobile or a passenger;
  • The automobile was taken against that individual’s will;
  • The defendant used force or fear to take the automobile, or to prevent the individual from resisting; and
  • The defendant intended to deprive the individual of possession of the vehicle, either temporarily or permanently

It is important to note that there is a distinction between possession and ownership in the crime of carjacking. As such, even if an individual is the legal owner of the automobile, he/she is not allowed to use force or fear in order to regain it from someone else in possession of the automobile.

carjacking law

What is the Sentencing And Punishment For A Carjacking Conviction In California

Carjacking is charged as a felony under California Penal Code 215 and comes with up to nine years in prison. However, this sentence may increase if the carjacker used a weapon to acquire the stolen car:

  • Armed with a Firearm

Under California PC 12022.53, aggressors who brandish firearms while committing a carjacking will get ten years in prison. However, should they fire a gun during the carjacking, the sentence increases to 20 years.

  • Armed with an Assault Weapon

Irrespective of the firearm an aggressor holds during armed carjackings, the penalty equates to a minimum of ten years of prison time.

  • Actually Using a Deadly or Dangerous Weapon

Finally, if the aggressor fires their weapon during the carjacking and, as a result, inflicts significant bodily injury or kills an individual, committing a violent crime, the sentence imposed falls anywhere between 25 years to life imprisonment.

What Offenses Often Charged Alongside Carjacking

Often, carjacking cases entail more than just forcibly removing the vehicle from an individual’s possession. As a result, a host of additional charges often accompany the carjacking conviction. Below, we discuss the most common ones.

  • Robbery – Although carjacking is considered auto theft, an individual may be charged with robbery and carjacking, California law stipulates the law may only charge individuals for one of these offenses.
  • Grand Theft Auto “GTA” – Depending on an individual’s criminal history and the circumstances of the carjacking, a prosecutor may choose to file the GTA charge as a felony or a misdemeanor. Should it become a misdemeanor, the aggressor may face an additional year in county jail.
  • Joyriding /Auto Theft – Joyriding refers to unlawfully driving a motor vehicle that does not belong to you. Again this can be charged as a misdemeanor which involves a year served in county jail.
  • Auto Burglary – If an individual carjacks a locked vehicle, prosecutors can file for an additional auto burglary charge, which is punishable by three years in state prison or one year in county jail.
  • Kidnapping – If an individual commits a carjacking, detains the driver/passenger in the vehicle, and drives off with them, they have committed a kidnapping. However, a person cannot be charged with kidnapping and carjacking. As a result, the carjacking charge will be dropped, and the individual will be prosecuted for kidnapping, which carries a life sentence with the possibility of parole.
  • Battery – If an individual uses force or violence against a passenger in dealing with them, this is considered battery. Prosecutors can file battery as a misdemeanor, carrying a six-month jail sentence.

What are the Legal Defenses of Carjacking?

Although carjacking is a crime, a criminal defense lawyer can use several legal defenses on their client’s behalf, which is why you should always contact an LA attorney. These defenses include:

  • No Force/Fear: If an individual did not use fear or force to take the vehicle, they have not violated Penal Code 215 PC, the carjacking law in California.
  • Consent: A carjacking only occurs when an individual takes a vehicle against the driver or passenger’s will. As a result, if the individual taking the car has consented, no carjacking has occurred.
  • Mistaken Identity: Carjackings are stressful. As a result, the victim may incorrectly identify the aggressor, leading to a wrongful conviction and carjacking victimization.
  • No Claim of Right: If an individual carjacks your vehicle, you are not allowed to use fear or force to claim it back or in preventing a carjacking, even though you are the rightful owner of the car. This is because California considers carjacking a crime against possession.

Can I Get Probation for Carjacking?

In some cases, the court may grant the convicted individual probation for carjacking. Typically this is usually for a period of three to five years. Further, the court may deem the probation as felony probation, in which case the defendant must have a probation officer.