California is in many ways a unique state, though sometimes it gets highlighted in the news for less-than-positive reasons. One recent example was a report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau on auto theft around the US. As it turns out, for 2013, California had nine of the top 10 cities with the highest rates of auto theft.
Considering the sheer volume of cars in the state, along with some other favorable conditions for theft, it isn't a huge surprise that California would rank high in auto theft rates. But auto theft in general has been declining for decades now around the US, and California law enforcement officials are determined to keep bringing the rate down even more, in part by coming down hard on people who allegedly perpetrate this crime.
What could getting charged with auto theft mean for you?
In California, taking a car that isn't yours (and without the owner's permission) could get you charged either with joyriding or with grand theft auto. (Vehicle Code section 10851). Joyriding means that you're taking the car unlawfully for a brief time; you don't intend to hang onto it, but maybe only take it for a short spin. With grand theft auto, you intend to keep the car for a substantially longer period of time, maybe permanently.
What you get charged with will depend on how prosecutors interpret your intentions; for grand theft auto, part of what they'll need to demonstrate is that you really did want to keep the car for more than a short period of time.
Another decision that prosecutors have to make is whether to charge you with a misdemeanor or felony. Both joyriding and grand theft auto can go either way. In general, joyriding is more likely to be charged as a misdemeanor, especially if you're a first-time offender and the incident itself isn't accompanied by other crimes such as assault or DUI. With grand theft auto, it's much more likely you'll get hit with a felony charge.
Along with a serious mark on your criminal record, you could be facing 3 to 5 years of probation and up to 3 years in jail and/or thousands of dollars in fines.