Georgia Criminal Law – Auto Theft Offenses

Georgia has several laws dealing with the theft of motor vehicles. This article serves to explain the nature of the offenses, possible punishment if convicted, and defenses to such charges.


Under O.C.G.A. § 16-5-44.1, a person commits the offense of vehicle hijacking when they take a car from another person by force and violence or intimidation, while in the possession of a firearm or weapon.

A person convicted of motor vehicle hijacking faces a 10 to 20 years imprisonment, and a fine ranging from $10,000 to $100,000. For a second conviction for carjacking, the new conviction results in a life in prison sentence plus a fine ranging from $100,000 to $500,000. It is not necessary that the defendant committed the prior carjacking in Georgia in order to receive a life sentence.

Motor Vehicle Theft

Unlike the above carjacking statute, there is no specific offense related to the nonviolent theft of an automobile. Rather, an individual who commits a nonviolent auto theft may be charged with “theft by taking” which O.C.G.A. 16-8-2, which makes it a crime for a person to “unlawfully take or, being in lawful possession thereof, unlawfully appropriate any property of another with the intention of depriving the owner of the property, regardless of the manner in which the property is taken or appropriated.”

As we can see, a person may be charged with theft by taking regardless of whether they took the property with or without permission of the owner, so long as the person takes the property with the intent to deprive the owner of the property. A common example of the former is when a person takes a vehicle with the permission of the owner, but then fails to return the vehicle to the owner.

This situation is also similar to the offense of “theft by conversion” which occurs when, being in legal possession of another’s property pursuant to an agreement (such as a lease or other rental agreement), converts the property to the person’s own use, in violation of the agreement. This is not a breach of contract issue but rather the punishment of depriving the owner of their property.

Punishment for Motor Vehicle Theft

O.C.G.A. § 16-8-12 provides sentencing guidelines for a defendant convicted of nonviolent motor vehicle theft, regardless of whether the defendant has been convicted of theft by taking or theft by conversion. The law creates different levels of punishment based upon the type of vehicle stolen.

Vehicles Used in Commercial Transportation of Cargo

O.C.G.A. § 16-8-12 (a)(8) provides, a person convicted of stealing a vehicle engaged in commercial transportation of cargo faces a minimum of 3 years imprisonment and a maximum of 10 years in addition to a fine of $5,000 to $50,000. A sentencing judge has the authority to place the defendant on probation or suspend the sentence in lieu of prison time. Furthermore, if the defendant has a commercial driver’s license (CDL), a conviction for commercial vehicle theft will cause a loss of their CDL.

Non-commercial Vehicles

If the vehicle at issue was not engaged in commercial transportation of cargo, the offense is punished based on the value of the vehicle. Pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 16-8-12 (a)(1), if the vehicle is valued at:

$1,500.01 to $5,000: 1-5 years in prison

$5,000 to $25,000: 1-10 years in prison, and

$25,000 or more: 2-20 years in prison

Interestingly, a sentencing judge has the ability to punish the offense as a misdemeanor, regardless of the value of the property. The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor conviction is one (1) year in jail and $1,000 fine, or both.  

Joy Riding

Georgia law prohibits joy riding under the criminal trespass statute rather then a specialized joy riding statute. Joyriding is commonly defined as the taking or driving someone else’s vehicle without their permission. Examples can include children taking their parent’s car or valets or mechanics driving the owners car without their permission. The key difference between joyriding and theft is the degree of intent. Joyriding does not require proof the person intended to deprive the owner of the vehicle permanently. Under O.C.G.A. § 16-7-21, a person commits criminal trespass by entering another person’s vehicle for an unlawful purpose or enters the vehicle of another after having been previously forbidden from doing so by the owner. Typically, joyriding is punished as a misdemeanor. It may, however, be punished as a felony if the defendant fails to return the vehicle after a significant period of time, the defendant intends to use the vehicle to commit a crime, or if the defendant damages the vehicle while joyriding.

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