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Auto Theft

Recently released statistics from the National Insurance Crime Bureau show that last year, Washington State was home to two of the nation's top ten cities with the highest per capita vehicle theft rates. The Washington State Legislature estimates that more than one car is stolen in the state every eleven minutes, and that over 130 cars are stolen each day.

Auto theft is a serious crime and is covered by a separate set of statutes from general theft crimes. In addition to felony charges for theft of a motor vehicle, individuals can face charges for possession of a stolen motor vehicle, taking a motor vehicle without permission, or making or possessing motor vehicle theft tools.

Furthermore, auto theft is one of the half-dozen or more flavors of theft crimes that are considered crimes of “moral turpitude.” A conviction for a crime of “moral turpitude,” like auto theft, may significantly affect your ability to get a job, keep a professional license, or even stay in the country as a resident alien.

Theft of a Motor Vehicle is a Felony- RCW 9A.56.056

Theft of a motor vehicle occurs when a person:

  • wrongfully obtains or exerts unauthorized control over a motor vehicle owned by another person, with the intent to deprive that person of his or her vehicle;
  • obtains control over someone else's motor vehicle through deception, with the intent to deprive that person of his or her vehicle; or
  • takes control of a lost or misdelivered motor vehicle, with the intent to deprive the true owner of his or her vehicle.

Under RCW 9A.56.065, theft of a motor vehicle is a class B felony, punishable by up to ten years in jail, or up to a $20,000 fine, or both.

Taking a Motor Vehicle Without Permission (aka 'joyriding')- RCW 9A.56.075

To successfully convict someone of theft of a motor vehicle, a prosecutor must prove that the individual intended to deprive the owner of his or her vehicle. If the prosecutor is unable to prove that intent, he or she might fall back instead on the lesser charge of taking a motor vehicle without permission, either in the first or second degree, depending on the circumstances.

A person is guilty of taking a motor vehicle without permission in the second degree if he or she:

  • intentionally takes or drives away another person's motor vehicle; or
  • voluntarily rides in or on top of a vehicle that he or she knows was unlawfully taken.

Under RCW 9A.56.075, taking a motor vehicle without permission in the second degree is a class C felony, punishable by up to five years in jail, or up to a $10,000 fine, or both.

However, if certain aggravating factors are present, a prosecutor can instead charge a person with taking a motor vehicle without permission in the first degree. A person can be charged with this higher crime if they intentionally take or drive away another person's motor vehicle and then either:

  • alter the vehicle, including removing the vehicle identification number plates or changing the manufacturer's serial number;
  • remove parts from the vehicle with the intent to sell those parts;
  • export the vehicle out of state or out of the country for profit;
  • intend to sell the vehicle; or
  • are engaged in a conspiracy with others to steal vehicles and sell them for profit.

If a prosecutor can prove one of these additional elements, they will likely pursue the first degree charge. Taking a motor vehicle without permission in the first degree a class B felony, punishable by up to ten years in jail, or up to a $20,000 fine, or both.

Making or Possessing Motor Vehicle Theft Tools

Prosecutors may also look to charge an individual they suspect of auto theft with the crime of “making or possessing motor vehicle theft tools”. See RCW 9A.56.063 defines this crime as making, mending, using, or even simply possessing any “motor vehicle theft tool” that is adapted for or commonly used to steal vehicles. The prosecutor must also prove that these tools were made or possessed under circumstances that show an intent to use them in the commission of a motor vehicle theft, or at least the knowledge that the tools are intended to be used in that manner.

In Washington State, the definition of “motor vehicle theft tool” is very broad and includes, but is not limited to: “slim jims,” false master keys, master purpose keys, altered or shaved keys, trial keys, slide hammers, lock pullers, picklocks, bits, and nippers.

Making or possessing motor vehicle theft tools is a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, or up to a $5,000 fine, or both.

Immigration Consequences

Under federal law, certain non-citizen residents (including H-1 visa holders, green card holders, and permanent residents) are subject to deportation and inadmissible status if they are convicted of a crime involving “moral turpitude”. According to the U.S. Department of State's Foreign Affairs Manual on Visas, 9 FAM 40.21(a) N2.3-1, theft and fraud are both crimes that involve “moral turpitude.”

Because being convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude” is both a grounds for deportation and a grounds for inadmissibility, it affects individuals seeking resident status, as well as those who have already been admitted as lawful permanent residents. For example, under 8 USC §1227(a)(2)(A)(i)(I), a lawful permanent resident who is convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude” committed within five years of his or her admission into the United States can be directly deported if the crime carries a potential sentence of one year or longer, as is the case with a conviction for theft of a motor vehicle.

“Let My Extensive Experience as a Former Prosecutor Work For You.”

When facing serious criminal charges like felony auto theft, you need a strong defense lawyer to fight for your legal rights and to advocate for your best interests. Experienced criminal defense attorney Steve Karimi is committed to putting his experience to work for you and is dedicated to protecting your constitutional rights and freedom. Mr. Karimi is a former prosecutor who uses his background and insight to fight for clients charged with all kinds of criminal misdemeanor and felony charges.

If you or a loved one has been arrested or charged with a theft crime in King County, Snohomish County, Skagit County, Whatcom County, or Kittitas County, contact the Law Office of Steve Karimi today at 206-621-8777 or 206-660-6200 (24-hour hotline).

Contact Us

If you were arrested or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Seattle or surrounding areas of Washington State, the Law Offices of Steve Karimi can help. Call 206-621-8777 during regular business hours or 206-660-6200 24 hours a day for a free consultation.

Seattle Defense Lawyer

Named a "rising star" in criminal defense by Washington Law and Politics magazine, Mr. Karimi is a former prosecutor for King County who uses his insight into prosecution strategies to protect his clients' rights in criminal court.