What is Grand Theft Auto?

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  • Written By: Charity Delich
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2015
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Grand theft auto is a crime that takes place when a person steals — or tries to steal — a motor vehicle. In addition to cars, buses, and trucks, grand theft auto can include stealing other types of motorized devices, such as motorcycles, snowmobiles, and tractors, which are legally allowed on public roads. Most jurisdictions don’t include theft of aircraft, bulldozers, boats, and spacecraft in this same category. The crime is simply referred to as motor vehicle theft in many jurisdictions.

The adjective “grand” as opposed to “petty” typically indicates that the stolen motor vehicle was valued over a certain dollar amount, which is normally set by statute. While petty theft is usually categorized as a misdemeanor, grand theft auto is often considered a felony charge. By and large, this means that a grand theft conviction will lead to heftier fines and greater prison time than a petty theft conviction. Repeat offenders are usually given harsher sentences. Those with a long history of stealing cars could even be ordered to serve jail time for life.

In order to secure a conviction, a prosecutor ordinarily needs to prove two elements. These elements may vary slightly from one jurisdiction to another. First, the prosecutor must show that the defendant knowingly obtained or used another person’s motor vehicle. Additionally, the prosecutor usually needs to demonstrate that the defendant intended to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle.


A number of popular terms are used to further describe distinct types of grand theft auto. For example, carjacking transpires when someone steals a motor vehicle while it is occupied. This can carry additional penalties, as many jurisdictions also consider it a robbery. Joyriding is used to describe a situation occurring when someone takes a motor vehicle without the owner’s consent and then abandons it. Frosting happens in the wintertime when someone steals a car while the driver is warming it up.

Grand theft auto perpetrators sometimes attempt to resell stolen vehicles. This can present a problem for thieves, however, if the vehicle is registered with a licensing authority, because it can be traced. As a result, a perpetrator is more likely to take the vehicle apart and sell off any pieces that aren’t registered with a vehicle licensing authority. Thieves with more sophisticated networks may even transport the stolen vehicle to another country in order to avoid the difficulties associated with selling a registered vehicle.


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