Under California law, a carjacking offense is treated very seriously. This offense incorporates many other aspects other than the mere stealing of a vehicle, as many people think. Additionally, a carjacking offense can easily be attached to other felony offenses like robbery. Also, several situations can lead to the enhancement of carjacking penalties. When this happens, you may be subjected to prolonged prison sentences and hefty fines.

Therefore, it is critical that if you are charged with this offense, you contact a carjacking defense attorney as soon as possible. A lawyer who understands carjacking laws may help you reduce the charges against you or strike off aggravating factors that cause sentence enhancement. Doing this may lead to you facing lenient punishments. If you are in Los Angeles, contact Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer for expert legal representation. In this article, we look at carjacking laws in California, punishments, and how you can fight the charges.

The Legal Meaning of Carjacking

Carjacking is defined under Penal Code (PC) 215.  It is the criminal act of taking a vehicle from someone else or their immediate presence by use of fear or force. Carjacking happens with intent to either temporarily or permanently deprive the owner of the car of its possession.

Elements of Carjacking

For the prosecutor to find you guilty of PC 215, he/she has to prove specific facts beyond a reasonable doubt.  These facts are what we call the elements of carjacking. They include:

  • Another person had a vehicle
  • You took the automobile from his or her immediate possession or presence or the immediate presence of his/her passenger
  • You did that against the person’s will by the use of fear or force
  • When you took the car, you intended to deprive the person of the vehicle’s possession either temporarily or permanently

Let us look at the legal definition of various terms so you can understand them better.

  • Immediate presence and possession

When we talk about carjacking, we generally imagine an individual who has a knife or gun ordering a motorist out of the vehicle. The individual then enters the automobile and speeds off.  Under this type of scenario, it is clear that the automobile was under the possession of the driver and within the driver’s immediate presence.

When we say immediate presence, it means the automobile was within the driver’s observation, control, or reach. It also means the driver could maintain the car’s possession if he or she were not overcome by fear or force. This definition widens the stretch of carjacking statute beyond situations where the supposed victim was operating the vehicle or was inside the vehicle during the offense.

  • Taking the automobile against a person’s will

Taking a vehicle from someone else means you assumed possession of that car and moved it even if it was only a minor distance. In case you were incapable of moving the car for any reason, you could still be sentenced for attempted carjacking. However, this will happen if only the prosecution can substantiate the other elements of this crime.

Against a person’s will means minus that person’s consent. When a person gives his/her consent to something, it means he/she has agreed to do it voluntarily and freely and not because of fear or force.  Consent requires an individual’s positive cooperation and free will. Unless the supposed victim willingly handed over his or her vehicle, then this element can easily be proven.

  • Fear or force

For carjacking law purposes, fear and force essentially have the same meaning. California courts have ruled that the forced effect of the fear that’s induced through the use of threats is a type of force in itself.

Fear means being afraid that the offender will harm you, your property, a family member, or the people that were at the crime scene. Fear is proven when there’s enough fear to make the victim obey the illegal demand for their property. This implies that provided you used adequate fear or force that surpasses the resistance of the victim; the element of fear or force will have been proven. The attempt of the victim to resist does not negate or disprove the allegation that you employed the use of fear or force.

Additionally, the victim does not need to consciously know that you used fear or force to have possession of their car. For instance, you can still be found guilty of carjacking in case there was a baby or an unconscious individual in the vehicle during the commission of the offense. 

  • The intention to deprive

Generally, theft crimes require that the defendant have the purpose of depriving the property owner of their property permanently. However, carjacking laws require that the defendant have the intention of depriving the car’s owner or the passenger of their car either temporarily or permanently.

It doesn’t matter whether you carjack a person’s car to sell it, keep for yourself, or borrow it. Any reason for carjacking will have you convicted.

The Penalties for Carjacking

Carjacking is charged as a felony offense. If convicted, the consequences will include probation and a maximum county jail of one year or up to nine years in prison. You will also be subjected to a fine of up to $10000. Note that you will face these penalties for every victim that was in the vehicle when the carjacking took place.

Apart from these consequences, there are several sentencing enhancements a judge can apply to your carjacking charges. This mostly happens if aggravating factors are present in your case. Below are the various aggravating factors that may lead to sentence increment:

  • Great bodily harm

If, during the commission of carjacking, you caused someone else to sustain a substantial bodily injury, you will face a sentence increment. In this case, you will face an additional and consecutive three to six years in prison as per PC 12022.7.

  • Criminal gang penalty enhancement

The State’s gang sentence enhancement applies if the prosecuting attorney is able to prove that you committed the carjacking in association and for the advantage of, or at the order of any given street gang.

If this were the case, you would face an automatic additional and consecutive fifteen years to life imprisonment as per PC 186.22.

  • Use of a gun

You would face an additional and consecutive ten years of a prison sentence under PC 12022.53 if you used a gun to commit carjacking. Under the same law, you will face an additional and consecutive twenty years in State prison if you fired a firearm in the commission of the offense. Still, under this law, you would face an additional and consecutive twenty-five years in prison to life imprisonment. This is in case you killed or caused severe injury to another person using a gun.

  • The three strike’s law

In California, carjacking is categorized as one of the violent felonies. This implies that to add on the usual penalties, a conviction of PC 215 will lead to a strike on your record. Also, it means you have to serve at the minimum 85% of prison time before you qualify for parole.

In case you face any second felony charge, and your record has a previous strike, the court will consider you a second striker. In this case, your time in prison will be two times the time required by the law.

If convicted of a felony for the third time, and your record has two previous strikes, the court will treat you as a third striker. When this happens, you will be subjected to compulsory minimum prison time of twenty-five years in prison to life imprisonment.

  • The felony murder rule

In case you or your accomplice unintentionally or accidentally kills someone else in the commission of carjacking, the felony-murder rule applies. In this case, you will be charged with murder in the first degree. This rule applies whether or not the victim dies in the continuance of the offense, provided the demise is logically linked to the offense.  For instance, if the alleged victim had a heart attack due to the events of the crime and died, you will face first-degree murder charges.

  • Immigration/deportation

Since carjacking is in the category of aggravated felonies, a conviction of PC 215 could additionally result in your removal or deportation in case you’re an alien or legal immigrant.

Legal Defenses against Carjacking Charges

Luckily, there are several legal defenses your attorney can argue in court for you in an attempt to fight carjacking charges. Common defenses include:

  • You did not use fear or force

If you did not use fear or force to take away the car from the victim, then you are not guilty of breaking the PC 215 carjacking law.

For instance, let’s say you were only admiring a person’s car that was at a gas station. Then, you noticed that the car keys were in there. You entered the car and drove off, leaving its owner standing outside. Based on these facts of the case, you aren’t guilty of PC 215. You didn’t opt to use fear or force to enter the vehicle; you merely took it.  However, you could be convicted of a lesser severe offense of joyriding or grand theft auto.

  • Consent

In case you had permission to take someone else’s car, you have not committed a carjacking offense. Carjacking only occurs when taking the vehicle is against the passenger or driver’s will. For instance, let’s say that a person permitted you to borrow their car. Then, for given reasons, you fail to give it back on the time upon which you two agreed. As a result, the person alleges that you carjacked him/her.

Based on these details, you aren’t supposed to be convicted of carjacking. This is because you had consent to have the car. Similar to the defense of not using fear or force, this situation does not warrant a carjacking offense. However, you may be convicted of any of the lesser offenses to carjacking like joyriding, or grand theft auto.

  • Mistaken identity

One of the leading reasons for wrongful convictions in California is mistaken identity. In this context, carjacking can be a stressful and startling event. The unfolding of events may reduce the victims’ ability to remember or identify the culprit correctly. Thus, many suspects of carjacking are misidentified, and then they get wrongfully accused. In case you got arrested only because you resemble the physical appearance of the real perpetrator, our lawyers can help.

A Claim of Right Isn’t a Legal Defense

Note that even if you’re the rightful owner of a vehicle, you aren’t permitted to apply fear or force to recover it from the person that was in its possession. The reason for this is that California law considers carjacking an offense against possession and not ownership.

Related Offenses to Carjacking

Based on the facts of your crime, several offenses can be charged instead of or to add on carjacking. These offenses include:

  • Robbery (PC 211)

Robbery means taking another person’s property from him/her or his/her immediate possession by use of fear or force.  Basically, carjacking is robbing another person of his/her vehicle. However, lawmakers created PC 215 to punish the robbery of an automobile more severely. The punishment for robbery is only up to five years in prison per count, while carjacking carries nine years in prison.

A person can commit these two crimes in a single incident. For instance, let’s say you approached a motorist, forcefully ordered them to give you money. Then you ordered them out of their vehicle so you could drive off. In this case, a prosecutor can prosecute you under both PC 211 and PC 215. However, the law only permits the judge to punish you for only one of the offenses. Therefore, the punishment for one offense will be set aside or stayed.

  • Grand theft auto (PC 487d1)

Grand theft auto refers to stealing a vehicle. The difference between a carjacking crime and grand theft auto is that grand theft auto doesn’t have the requirement of fear or force. Also, for you to be considered to have violated PC 487d1 law, you must have had the intent to deny the car owner’s possession permanently. But for carjacking, you must have had the purpose of denying the car owner possession temporarily or permanently.

PC 487d1 is considered a wobbler. By this, it means the prosecutor may choose to charge you with either a felony or misdemeanor based on your criminal record and the facts of your case. A misdemeanor conviction carries a maximum jail sentence of one year and a fine of up to $1,000. A felony conviction, on the other hand, carries a maximum prison sentence of four years and up to $ 10000 in fines. The prison sentence is enhanced to an additional two years in case the value of the car was over $65000.

  • Auto theft or joyriding

Auto theft or joyriding occurs when you illegally drive or take another person’s car. Like carjacking, joyriding doesn’t require the intent to deny the car owner possession of the automobile permanently. What matters is you unlawfully drove or took another person’s car.  And like grand theft auto, there’s no requirement of fear or force for a joyriding conviction to occur.

Joyriding is a wobbler offense, though prosecutors usually charge it as a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor conviction carries a maximum jail sentence of one year. A felony, on the other hand, carries a maximum prison sentence of three years and up to $5,000 in fines. In case the vehicle in question is a police car, an ambulance, or a fire truck, you will face a maximum prison sentence of four years and a fine of up to $10,000.

  • Kidnapping during carjacking (PC 209.5)

This statute addresses the offense of kidnapping in the commission of carjacking. If at the time of carjacking you drove off with the motorist or passenger, the prosecutor can impose kidnapping charges. This is a form of aggravated kidnapping, and it is specific only to carjacking offenses. The offense requires that:

  • The defendant moves the victim a significant distance past that which is merely incidental to carjacking
  • The movement escalates the threat of injury to the alleged victim

For instance, suppose, rather than ordering the motorist to get out of the vehicle, you point a gun at him/her and order that he/she moves to the passenger’s seat. The victim complies, and you drive away with him/her inside. In this case, you have committed a kidnapping in the commission of carjacking. If convicted of PC 209.5, the sentence includes life imprisonment with a likelihood of parole.

Get a Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer Near Me

Knowing that you’re innocent is one thing. However, proving it before a judge can be challenging, especially if the proof is pointing at you. If you are charged with a serious felony offense like carjacking, you need a skilled carjacking attorney to help you fight your case. For years, attorneys from Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer have served Los Angeles clients, offering them skillful legal representation. We understand California carjacking law, and we do all we can to prove our client’s innocence. Call us at 310-502-1314 to share with us the details of your case, so we can start building a strong defense strategy.

Testimonials From Other Lawyers

"I recommend this attorney if you need someone experienced in handling your criminal matter in Los Angeles" - Orange County Criminal Lawyer