Cars are some of the most commonly-stolen pieces of property, and that means the laws are written in such a way that every kind of auto theft is accounted for, even auto theft in which the owner actually receives their vehicle back. We’re talking about the crime known as “unauthorized use of a vehicle.” On this blog, we’ll go over exactly what these charges mean, including the definition of the crime, the penalties associated with it, and a few of the accepted defenses you can use to fight back.
What is an Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle Charge?
“Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle” is knowingly operating someone else's automobile, aircraft or boat without obtaining their consent. This is often confused with auto theft, but the two crimes actually have a pretty significant difference between the two of them. Whereas auto theft involves taking possession and control over a vehicle with the intent of depriving the owner of the vehicle, unauthorized use of a vehicle does not actually have intent to deprive the owner of the vehicle of possession. Instead, it merely involves using or operating the vehicle when you know you don’t have authorization or permission to do so.
Let’s look at some examples. Say Jane and John go through a rough breakup after a long relationship. John had been borrowing Jane’s car to get to work, and Jane informs him he’s no longer allowed to use the car. However, one day John misses his bus and is going to be late for work. Not wanting to be disciplined or risk getting fired, he simply uses his key to borrow Jane’s car and get to work for the day.
In this instance, Jane may accuse John of auto theft, but the charge will likely be reduced to unauthorized operation because John never had the intent of depriving Jane of her ownership of the vehicle. He fully intended on returning it when he completed his shift and arrived home, even with an apology. However, Jane could still press charges because John used her car without her permission.
Here’s another example: two co-workers are conspiring to play a prank against their boss who is extremely proud of and protective over his car. While their boss is in a long meeting, the co-workers sneak into his desk, take his key, and then drive his car a block away where they park it again. The two then film his reaction when they reveal that his car wasn’t stolen, simply moved to make him panic.
In this instance, even though there was no intent to steal or deprive their boss of ownership of the vehicle, their boss could still press charges for using his vehicle without permission.
What are the Penalties for Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle?
Unauthorized use of a vehicle is charged as a state jail felony under Texas Penal Code Section 31.07 and you could find yourself facing anywhere from six months to two years in a state jail and fines up to $10,000. However, the exact penalties you’ll face will vary on a case-to-case basis because of the circumstances of different offenses. It’s strongly advised you discuss your case with a Tarrant County criminal defense lawyer to get the specific information about your exact situation.
Perhaps the most often-used defense against these charges is arguing that you did not know you were not authorized or had permission to use the vehicle. If you can demonstrate based on your circumstances that a reasonable person would not have known that they didn’t have permission to use the vehicle in question, then you may be able to have the charges dropped. This can be hard to prove, however, so it’s advised you consult with an attorney.
Another accepted defense is the defense of mistaken identity. It’s actually not all that uncommon for someone to mistakenly believe that the accused used their vehicle when in fact it was used by someone else entirely. When this is the case, a crime may have been committed, but not by the person who is accused, thus necessitating their acquittal.
Talk to a Tarrant County criminal defense attorney from Alband, Lane & Balderama today by dialing (817) 997-4366 for a free consultation!