This crime is related to Penal Code section 487(d), Grand Theft Auto, but different. Often, DAs charge Vehicle Code section 10851 when someone takes a car, but it's not the classic auto theft you're probably imagining; instead it's a circumstance where someone is caught driving a car without the owner's permission, but doesn't necessarily intend to steal it for good, sell it or strip it for parts, etc. This is why the offense is often referred to as "joyriding." For example, I had an 18-year-old client who took his parents' car without their permission to go party with friends for a day. He fully intended to bring the car back eventually, but his parents were angry and called the police on him. The DA charged my client with violating Vehicle Code section10851. The case was ultimately dismissed.
WHAT THE DA NEEDS TO PROVE YOU GUILTY
To convict you of car theft in violation of Vehicle Code section 10851, the prosecution needs to prove 3 things:
You took or drove a vehicle belonging to another person;
The other person had not consented to the taking or driving of his or her vehicle; and
When you took or drove the vehicle, you had the specific intent to deprive the owner either permanently or temporarily of his or her title to or possession of the vehicle.
VC 10851 is a "wobbler", which means it can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. As a felony, if convicted and probation is denied, you could be sentenced to either 16 months, 2 years, or a maximum of 3 years of prison for this offense. However, your time would be served in local jail, not state prison.
If the DA files the case as a misdemeanor, the maximum punishment is 364 days in county jail, but generally folks face 2-3 years of informal/summary/court probation, fines/fees, and some jail. Jail time, however, can most likely be served on the Sheriff's work program (community labor) instead of behind bars.
Often times folks have vague agreements or arrangements over the use of a vehicle. The DA has to prove the owner did not consent to you taking the car. But, just because the complaining witness testifies that he didn't consent to you taking the car doesn't mean everything is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps the car owner had consented on a prior occasion to you taking the car. Now, it's not so clearcut that you knew the car owner didn't consent. At its core, these cases often boil down to whether the DA can prove you had the "specific intent" to take that car for any period of time without the owner's permission. In other words, they need to show, at least circumstantially, that you knew what you were doing was illegal. If you got an argument to show it's not so obvious, you could have a good case to fight.
Full Code Section:
Vehicle Code section 10851
(a) Any person who drives or takes a vehicle not his or her own, without the consent of the owner thereof, and with intent either to permanently or temporarily deprive the owner thereof of his or her title to or possession of the vehicle, whether with or without intent to steal the vehicle, or any person who is a party or an accessory to or an accomplice in the driving or unauthorized taking or stealing, is guilty of a public offense and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year or pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code or by a fine of not more than five thousand dollars ($5,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment.
(b) If the vehicle is (1) an ambulance, as defined in subdivision (a) of Section 165, (2) a distinctively marked vehicle of a law enforcement agency or fire department, taken while the ambulance or vehicle is on an emergency call and this fact is known to the person driving or taking, or any person who is party or an accessory to or an accomplice in the driving or unauthorized taking or stealing, or (3) a vehicle which has been modified for the use of a disabled veteran or any other disabled person and which displays a distinguishing license plate or placard issued pursuant to Section 22511.5 or 22511.9 and this fact is known or should reasonably have been known to the person driving or taking, or any person who is party or an accessory in the driving or unauthorized taking or stealing, the offense is a felony punishable by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code for two, three, or four years or by a fine of not more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment.
(c) In any prosecution for a violation of subdivision (a) or (b), the consent of the owner of a vehicle to its taking or driving shall not in any case be presumed or implied because of the owner’s consent on a previous occasion to the taking or driving of the vehicle by the same or a different person.
(d) The existence of any fact which makes subdivision (b) applicable shall be alleged in the accusatory pleading, and either admitted by the defendant in open court, or found to be true by the jury trying the issue of guilt or by the court where guilt is established by plea of guilty or nolo contendere or by trial by the court sitting without a jury.
(e) Any person who has been convicted of one or more previous felony violations of this section, or felony grand theft of a vehicle in violation of subdivision (d) of Section 487 of the Penal Code, former subdivision (3) of Section 487 of the Penal Code, as that section read prior to being amended by Section 4 of Chapter 1125 of the Statutes of 1993, or Section 487h of the Penal Code, is punishable as set forth in Section 666.5 of the Penal Code. The existence of any fact that would bring a person under Section 666.5 of the Penal Code shall be alleged in the information or indictment and either admitted by the defendant in open court, or found to be true by the jury trying the issue of guilt or by the court where guilt is established by plea of guilty or nolo contendere, or by trial by the court sitting without a jury.