Carjacking is a severe offense, usually convicted as a felony in California. The state prison sentence can be up to nine years and can affect your life considerably. Therefore, it is wise to seek the counsel of an attorney if you are charged with carjacking.

The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney defends you when you are facing carjacking charges. These charges follow laws that can be complicated to comprehend. We help to provide you with the legal knowledge and expertise to help you fight these charges.

Definition and Elements of Carjacking

Carjacking is one of the serious theft offenses that lead to a felony conviction when sentenced. It stands out due to the requirement that the offender uses force or fear to intimidate the victims into releasing their vehicles.

California PC 215 defines carjacking as the illegal taking of another person’s vehicle from his or her possession or from the immediate presence of a passenger using force to derive the person's possession of the vehicle.

It is an offense committed against the possession of a vehicle as opposed to property. This means that you could be guilty of carjacking your vehicle if the offense meets the following elements:

- A person has possession of a vehicle

- You took the vehicle from the immediate presence of the person or the passenger of the vehicle

- Against his or her will

- Using fear or force

- Intending to deprive the person of the vehicle temporarily or permanently

Carjacking differs from other car theft offenses such as grand theft auto, in that the defendant uses force or fear to get the vehicle.

Force of fear refers to any form of intimidation (including physical force) that compels the victim to let the defendant have the vehicle. For instance, if the victim fears that you might hurt him or her, and lets you have the car, then you will be guilty of the offense.

The victim resisting your actions does not equate a lack of fear as long as you overpower the victim through threats or use of physical force.

The court will also determine the willingness and positive cooperation of the victim in letting you have the car. If the victim did not willingly let you have the car, then you are guilty of carjacking. The crime will have occurred if you take the car and move it over the slightest distance. 

The intent to deprive the victim of the vehicle does not depend on your intent to return the vehicle. Therefore, you will have met the standard if you 'borrow,' sell or keep the car for yourself.

Interestingly, you could also be charged with carjacking if you took your vehicle from another person's possession. As long as the offense meets all the elements of carjacking, you can be convicted for the offense.

Another term used in carjacking charges is "in the immediate presence," which means that the victim has access or the right to access or control the vehicle. For example, a vehicle that you have parked in your driveway is in your immediate presence.

Legal Defenses

Carjacking is a felony in California; therefore, a conviction for the offense has a far-reaching effect. You not only face the risk of a state prison sentence, but you could also get a strike on your record.  A strike increases the penalties, which could accumulate to a life sentence.

You are also likely to face harsher penalties if your case has aggravating factors that the prosecution can prove.

The first step in fighting carjacking charges is to hire an experienced attorney. Your attorney will launch an investigation as soon as you hire him or her. The investigation is important in gathering evidence to fight the charges against you.

Your attorney will also develop the best defense strategy based on the facts of the case. Some of the legal defenses you attorney can use include:

1. Mistaken Identity

A mistake in identifying an offender is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. The witnesses to a carjacking might be too shocked about the event that they do not pay enough attention to the offender.

They might remember sketchy details from the incident, especially if they did not get a good look at the face.

Another cause of mistaken identity is suggestive tactics by the police. Mistaken identity happens during scenarios such as:

- A line-up

- A photo array where the police present the witness with a group of photographs

- Show ups where the witness will identify one person at a time while at the scene of the crime

- Voice line-ups

- Identification in court

A witness is also more likely to form a new memory after a misidentification. This means that he or she will now associate you with the crime; therefore, he or she can no longer correctly identify the actual offender.

Other factors that can affect the accuracy of witness identification include:

  • The lighting (it is much harder to identify a person when the visibility is poor)
  • Your familiarity with the witness
  • Whether the offender was carrying a weapon (a weapon often distracts a person's attention from the face of the offender to the weapon.
  • Intoxication (if the witness was drunk at the time of the offense, he or she might be unable to identify the offender, especially if he or she is not familiar to the witness)
  • The time between the carjacking and the witness identification (the more time passes, the higher the chances of misidentification)
  • Racial differences between the offender and the witness (a witness is more likely to have difficulties identifying a person of a different race)
  • Stress (if the witness was stressed at the time of the offense, he or she might have missed some details leading to wrongful identification)

Sometimes, police take steps to avoid misidentification of the offender. These steps might include:

  • Requesting the witness to describe the suspect before any line-up or witness identification
  • Requesting the witness to provide the details of the incident as soon as possible
  • The officer conducting the line-up should not be aware of the suspect within the line-up
  • Including only one suspect in the line-up
  • Separating all the eyewitnesses during the line-up
  • Refraining from saying things that would influence the witness in identifying the witness
  • Including people who match the description of the suspect into the line-up
  • The officer must hide any written information in photo line-ups
  • Making a recording, where possible, of the line-up identification process

The officers must also notify the witnesses that they are not pressured to identify a witness and that the suspect might not be among those in the line-up.

Once the witness identifies the suspect, the officer must not validate or invalidate the identification or provide any information about the identified person. In addition, the officer must ask about the confidence the witness has in his or her identification.

Defense attorneys deal with misidentification using expert witnesses and reexamination of the eyewitnesses. Fighting mistaken identity requires prompt action to prevent a wrongful conviction. Therefore, you must speak to your attorney as soon as possible to avoid being convicted for an offense you did not commit.

2. False Accusations

Closely related to mistaken identity are false accusations. People are motivated by various factors when accusing someone of an offense. These include jealousy, anger, malice, and revenge. Others accuse you falsely to turn the attention from themselves when they are guilty of the offense. Other reasons for false accusations include:

- Mistaken identity

- Problems with recollecting the details of an offense

- Misconduct by the police

- Misleading forensic evidence

If you were falsely accused, you must work to ensure that you are not prosecuted for an offense you did not commit. Contact an attorney soon enough to have sufficient time to investigate the offense.

Your attorney can conduct a pre-file investigation, which gathers relevant evidence about the offense before the prosecution can file charges. Your attorney will interview witnesses, question new witnesses, conduct background searches, and information that could be used to impeach the credibility of the witness.

Depending on the results of the investigation, your attorney can convince the prosecution to charge a lesser offense or not file charges.

3. You Did Not Use Fear or Force

The use of force or fear is one of the required elements in proving a carjacking charge. Therefore, if you can prove that you did not use force or fear, then you cannot be guilty of carjacking.

You can also be guilty of carjacking if you use force to drive another person’s vehicle even if you have a claim to it. The prosecution only needs to prove that you used fear to influence or intimidate the victim.

Fear could include physical violence as well as the fear of injury to:

- The victim

- The family of the victim

- The property of the victim

- Another party present

However, if the prosecution can establish the other elements of carjacking, you will be convicted of either grand theft auto or joyriding, depending on the circumstances of the offense.

4. The Victim Gave His/Her Consent

If the victim allows you to take his or her car, then you cannot be guilty of carjacking. A person can consent to lend you their car then change his or her mind along the way. In that case, you cannot be guilty of the offense.

The court will also require you to prove that the victim's consent was voluntary and made out of positive cooperation with a full understanding of the activity.

In some cases, the court could convict you for a grand theft auto, even if you had the permission of the owner to take the car. For example, if you were to use the car for a night, then return it, but you stay with it for more than a week, then you might be guilty of auto theft.

You could also fight carjacking charges by proving that the vehicle was not in the immediate presence of the vehicle (therefore, he or she could not be in possession or control of access to the vehicle).

The legal defenses your attorney uses depend on the facts of the offense and the evidence the prosecution has. In most cases, your attorney will engage in pretrial negotiations to fight these charges or get a favorable plea deal. A plea deal could include reduced charges, dropping additional charges or lesser sentencing.

Penalties and Sentencing

Carjacking is considered a violent felony in California. The penalties you get will depend on the circumstances of the offense, your criminal history, and aggravating circumstances in your case.

The penalties for carjacking include:

- Probation and a maximum of one year in county jail

- Three, five or nine years in state prison

- A fine not exceeding $10,000

The penalties increase for every victim that was in the car when you committed the offense.

The court will also enhance your penalties depending on your criminal history and the facts in your case. Some of the factors that can lead to sentencing enhancements include:

- You caused great bodily injury to another person while committing the crime. the court will impose an additional and consecutive state prison sentence of between three and six years

- You will also receive an additional and consecutive state prison sentence of fifteen years to life if the carjacking was for the benefit, in association or was directed by a street gang

- If you used a gun while committing the offense, you would get a sentence enhancement or ten years, twenty years or 25 years to life

- Carjacking is also a strike offense under the California three strikes law. The three-strikes policy demands that you serve at least 85% of your sentence before you can qualify for parole. If you have one prior strike on your record, you will serve double the prison term. As a third striker, you will be sentenced to 25 years to life

- If a person dies while you are committing the offense, you will receive a sentence enhancement under the felony-murder rule. You will be charged with first-degree murder, which could lead to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

- If you are a legal migrant, you will also face deportation or removal upon your conviction

Fighting the charges is, therefore, critical if either you wish to spend lesser time in prison or have your charges dismissed. 

In some cases, you might be charged with federal carjacking. The offense would cross from state to federal jurisdiction if the vehicle were involved in interstate commerce. The crime is also a federal offense if you intended to kill or cause great bodily harm to another person.

Federal carjacking is a felony with a sentence of up to 15 years in federal court. You might also have to pay a fine of $250,000. If another person suffered great bodily injury, you will spend 25 years in federal prison and pay a $250,000 fine.

If the victim of the crime dies to the carjacking, you will be sentenced to life imprisonment in federal court and pay a fine of $250,000. Alternatively, the court might place you on the death penalty.

If you are facing federal carjacking charges, you need to find an attorney who is familiar with federal criminal defense. You should start your search for an attorney soon after you are arrested.

Related Offenses

Carjacking often happens as part of or together with other crimes. Depending on the nature of these offenses, the prosecution can charge them together or in place of carjacking. The common crimes committed together with carjacking include robbery, auto burglary, and grand theft auto, kidnapping battery or assault.

The related offenses include:

1. Grand Theft Auto

Grand theft auto is the offense involving stealing a car. Grand theft auto is a lesser offense compared to carjacking. It can be charged after a plea bargain with the prosecution. The differences between a carjacking and grand auto theft include:

- Grand theft does not have an element of fear or use of force

- Grand theft auto seeks to deprive the owner of the car permanently

As opposed to carjacking, grand theft is a crime against ownership. It is, however, a lesser offense usually treated as a California wobbler.

The court will charge the offense as a misdemeanor or a felony based on the offense and your criminal history.

The penalties for a misdemeanor offense include:

- A maximum term of one year in county jail

- A fine of up to $1,000

A felony conviction attracts a sentence of up to four years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000. If the car is worth more than $65,000, you will spend up to six years in state prison.

2. Auto Theft

Auto theft is also an offense closely related to carjacking. It involves unlawfully driving another person’s car. Usually, joyriding deprives the owner of his or her car. You also do not have to use force or fear to be guilty of joyriding.

Joyriding is a wobbler offense, but the courts treat the offense as a misdemeanor in a majority of the cases.

A conviction for misdemeanor auto theft includes a sentence of one year in county jail. The felony conviction will involve a state prison sentence of up to three years, including a fine of between $3,000 and $10,000. The fine increases if the vehicle is a police car, fire truck, or ambulance.

3. Auto Burglary

When you break into a car to carjack it, then you might be charged with auto burglary in addition to carjacking. Auto burglary is a wobbler offense characterized by breaking into a locked car.

The elements of the offense include:

- The vehicle was locked

- The defendant entered the locked vehicle to commit a felony offense

The penalties for the offense include a year in a county jail for the misdemeanor conviction. A felony conviction attracts a state prison sentence of up to three years. Your attorney could negotiate probation instead of incarceration.

4. Robbery

Robbery has similar elements to those of carjacking. It involves taking the personal property of another person from his or her immediate possession using force or fear.

Robbery can either be a first or second degree depending on the specific case. First-degree robbery is a felony punishable by:

- Felony probation

- Three, four or six years in state prison

- $10,000 in fines

The sentence might increase to three, six, or nine years if you committed the offense in an inhabited dwelling with at least two people in the structure.

Second-degree robbery is also a felony punishable by:

- Probation

- A state prison sentence of two, three or five years

- $10,000 in fines

The court might also apply sentence enhancements for the following:

- Using a firearm

- Engaging in gang activities

- Causing the injury or death of another person

- A felony strike

5. Kidnapping During a Carjacking

Kidnapping during a carjacking is a form of aggravated kidnapping. It involves kidnapping a person who is not a principal to the carjacking offense while committing the carjacking. The offense involves moving the victim without his or her consent and using force or fear.

Kidnapping during a carjacking is always treated as a felony. The penalties of the offense include a life sentence without.parole and a strike on your record.

Find a Carjacking Defense Attorney Near Me

Carjacking is a serious felony with severe consequences. You must take charge of your defense by hiring an attorney soon after your arrest. Prompt action matters when you are facing such a potentially life-changing situation.

Your attorney will work closely with different parties in the offense, including the prosecution, police, witnesses, the victim, experts, and yourself, to ensure that he or she increases the strength of your defense.

The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney has worked closely with thousands of clients for many years, providing them with defense services. Our dedication to service and understanding of California laws gives us an advantage when providing criminal defense services.

We take our time to understand the client and the offense to ensure that we provide the best possible services to our clients. For example, if you are an immigrant, your defense will also have to fight to protect your status as a legal resident and reduce the risk of removal or deportation. Consult us today by calling 310-564-2605.

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