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Unauthorized Use of Vehicle

VC 10851(a) Law & Defense

There are several laws that cover the crime of taking a vehicle without permission. The most common criminal charges include: Unlawful Taking or Tampering with a Vehicle, also known as Unauthorized Use of Vehicle (VC 10851); Joyriding (PC 499); and Grand Theft Auto (GTA) (PC 472(d)(1).

This article is dedicated to a summary of the law, the defense, and the punishment associated with Unauthorized Use of Vehicle (VC 10851(a)). For information on PC 472(d)(1), please see Grand Theft Auto (GTA).


In order to find the defendant guilty of VC 10851(a), the district attorney must prove that the defendant:

  • Took, or drove, someone else's vehicle without the owner's consent, and

  • When the defendant took the vehicle, he or she intended to deprive the owner of possession or ownership of the vehicle for any period of time

Note: Even if the owner of the vehicle has previously given consent to the defendant to drive the vehicle it does not necessarily mean that the defendant had consent at any particular time thereafter.


According to VC 10851(a), in order for the crime to have been committed, the vehicle must have been moved at least some distance. For example, if the defendant is found in a vehicle without permission, but the vehicle is not proved to have been moved by the defendant, then VC 10851(a) cannot be proved. However, proof that the vehicle was moved by the defendant can be proved by circumstantial evidence. For example: If the defendant is caught sleeping in a stolen vehicle ten miles from the owner's home, the circumstances will suggest that the defendant drove the vehicle.

Note: Attempted Unauthorized Use of Vehicle (VC 664/10851(a)) may be charged where the defendant intended to, but did not actually move the vehicle. For example, where a defendant is caught in the act of unlawfully taking a vehicle, but he or she never actually moved the vehicle due to being caught in the act, he or she may be charged with attempted unlawful use of vehicle (VC 664/10851(a)).


vehicle can be a motorcycle, scooter, bus, truck, tractor, etc. There are special penalty enhancements for certain types of vehicles that are stolen, such as an ambulance, firetruck, police car, specialized vehicle for disabled persons, etc.

Punishment for VC 10851(a)

Jail: Unlawful Use of Vehicle may be charged as a misdemeanor or as a felony. When VC 10851(a) is charged a a felony, the defendant may face up to three (3) years in jail. When VC 10851(a) is charged as a misdemeanor, the defendant may face up to one (1) year in jail.

VC 10851(b): Unauthorized Use of an Emergency Vehicle carries a maximum jail sentence of four (4) years for a felony conviction, and one (1) year for a misdemeanor conviction.

Note: Attempted Unauthorized Use of Vehicle, or  VC 664/10851(a), has a maximum penalty of two (2) years for a felony conviction and six (6) months for a misdemeanor conviction. 

Probation Sentence: Common sentences for first time VC 10851(a) offenders include probation (either with or without jail), split sentences (half time in jail and half out of jail on work release), and suspended sentences (no jail unless the defendant violates his or her probation terms).

Note: VC 10851(a) and 10851(b) are neither serious, nor violent offense under California law; therefore, the crime is not considered a strike offense per California's Three Strikes Law. If the defendant is sentenced to jail for this crime, he or she may earn up to fifty percent (50%) off his or her jail or work release sentence for good conduct while serving his or her sentence.


CIMT: Unauthorized Use of Vehicle is not considered a crime involving moral turpitude.

In addition to any possible jail/prison commitment, if the defendant is found guilty of unauthorized use of a vehicle per vehicle code 10851(a), the defendant may have his driver's license revoked, be placed on probation, made to pay hefty fines, lose his right to practice a profession (for licensed professions and occupations), lose his right to immigration status (for non-U.S. citizens), face civil lawsuits from the owner of the vehicle taken, and more.


Typical defenses to a charge of Unlawful Taking or Use of Vehicle, or Unauthorized Use of Vehicle, include: Insufficient evidence, consent (permission to drive the vehicle) mistake of fact (defendant reasonably believed he or she had permission to take vehicle), suppression of evidence, duress, jury nullification, insanity, illegal search and seizure, emergency (vehicle needed to avoid a greater emergency), statute of limitations (3 years for felony VC 10851(a) and 1 year for misdemeanor), and more.


Plea bargain: A plea bargain is a reduction of a criminal charge to a lighter charge (charge bargaining) and/or a lighter sentence (sentence bargaining) in exchange for a promise from the defendant to plead guilty to a criminal charge. Common plea bargains for unauthorized use of vehicle include a reduction from a felony charge of VC 10851(a) to a misdemeanor charge of VC 10851(a), or a plea bargain for a probation sentence.

If you are charged with unauthorized use of vehicle or VC 10851(a) and 10851(b), contact our criminal defense lawyers for a free consultation. Call today!!



Closely Related Crimes

  • PC 499(a) Joyriding with a prior auto theft conviction

  • PC 496(d) Purchase or receive stolen vehicle

Quick Reference​ Sheet

Crime: Unauthorized Use of Vehicle

Code: VC 10851(a) (CalCrim No. 1820)

Wobbler: Yes. VC 10851(a) is a wobbler. This means that VC 10851(a) is charged as a felony or as a misdemeanor.

Incarceration:Felony VC 10851(a) jail sentence range: 16 months, 2 or 3 years (if probation not granted). Misdemeanor jail sentence up to 1 year.

Probation: Probation is allowed in felony and misdemeanor VC 10851(a) cases (assuming other crimes or enhancements that bar a probation sentence are not present). Whether or not a probation sentence is offered by the District Attorney, or granted by the court, depends on several factors, including the defendant's criminal history and the facts of the case.​

Work Release or House Arrest: In some cases, a probation sentence can include actual in-custody county jail, house arrest (electronic monitoring), or work release (or some combination of these penalties); however, most in-custody jail sentence orders that are required as a terms of probation are much shorter than the maximum jail sentence.

PC 1170(h)): Yes. VC 10851(a) is subject to PC 1170(h) sentencing. This means that any jail or prison sentence may be:

  • Split (half in-custody / half out-of-custody)

  • Suspended (possibly never served)

  • Served in county jail (not state prison)

  • Note: Limitations may apply

Strike: VC 10851(a) is not a strike offense listed in California's Three Strikes law.

Credits: 50% good conduct credits available.

CIMT: VC 10851(a) [Temporary Taking] is not a crime involving moral turpitude.


Firearms: Felony VC 10851(a) convictions prohibit a defendant from owning or possessing a firearm.

Bail: $50,000, or the amount taken, whichever is greater (San Bernardino County)

Note: More penalties, direct or indirect, may apply. This info is created for that purpose only; accuracy not guaranteed. No attorney/client relationship is formed by use of this info. If arrested or charged with a crime contact a criminal defense lawyer without delay. 

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