Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in New York
What puts a person or entity at risk of prosecution?
You can be charged with the unauthorized use of a vehicle in New York if you use or hold a vehicle without the owner’s consent. The relevant law is casually known as the “joyriding” statute — in reference to “borrowing” someone else’s car for a quick ride without permission. While easy to remember, this nickname is not entirely accurate.
Contrary to popular belief, unauthorized use of a vehicle actually covers a wide variety of common vehicle uses. In fact, you can be charged with this crime without ever sitting behind the wheel of a car.
The following are examples of situations where charges of unauthorized use of a vehicle may be filed:
- You drove a vehicle without permission — aka “joyriding.”
- You borrowed a vehicle and used it for a different purpose than the owner agreed to.
- You borrowed a vehicle and kept it longer than the time-frame laid out by the owner.
- You are a mechanic who drove a customer’s vehicle for your own personal use.
- You are a mechanic who held a customer’s vehicle in the shop for a substantial amount of time after it was supposed to be returned to the owner.
As you may have noticed, mechanics are at a heightened risk of being charged with this crime due to the nature of their job.
The Legal Definition of Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle
Article 165 of New York Penal Law sets out the legal definition of unauthorized use of a vehicle. This crime can be charged as a Class A misdemeanor, Class E felony, or a Class D felony in the State of New York. The circumstances surrounding your unauthorized vehicle usage would determine which of these charges you receive.
1. Class A Misdemeanor / 3rd Degree
Let’s start with the lowest and most common criminal charge: the Class A misdemeanor. The “elements” of this charge in the 3rd degree are the things that the prosecutor must prove in order for you to be found guilty of this offense. For you to be convicted under New York Penal Law 106.05, both of the following must be true:
- Criminal Act: You took, operated, exercised control over, rode in, held, or otherwise used a vehicle without the owner’s consent, OR you took advantage of the owner’s consent and used the vehicle outside of the agreed-upon terms.
- Criminal Intent: You committed one or more of the aforementioned actions either purposely or negligently.
If the prosecution fails to prove either of these elements, you should be found not guilty of the criminal charge. Let’s examine each of these elements in more detail to understand them better.
- Criminal Act
You must commit a criminal action to be convicted of unauthorized use of a vehicle. These actions include taking, driving, riding in, retaining, and otherwise using a vehicle without the owner’s consent. You could also be convicted of this crime if an owner allows you to use their vehicle and you use it outside or beyond the agreed-upon terms.
These actions are common for mechanics, who are constantly given temporary, ill-defined permission to use and work on their customers’ cars. Driving a customer’s car without their express consent, or intentionally withholding it past the agreed-upon time-frame of work, could be considered criminal actions.
- Criminal Intent
Your intent matters. If you used a vehicle without the owner’s consent, you must have done so either purposely or negligently to be found guilty of this crime.
To act purposely means that you used the vehicle knowing that you did not have permission to use it. This would be a case where your roommate tells you not to drive their car, and you choose to do so anyway.
To act negligently means that you used the vehicle after carelessly assuming you had permission when any reasonable person would assume they did not have permission. That’s right: “I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to use it” isn’t a Get Out of Jail Free card. The law specifies that if you don’t receive consent from the owner, you are presumed not to have consent.
2. Class E Felony / 2nd Degree
This charge is identical to the 3rd-degree offense, with one additional element, you must have already been convicted of this crime in the 2nd or 3rd degree within the last 10 years.
The Class E Felony charge of this crime is a punishment for repeat offenders. If you are being charged with this crime in the 2nd degree, the prosecutor will need to prove both elements of the 3rd degree crime AND that you were convicted of this crime within the past 10 years.
3. Class D Felony / 3rd Degree
This charge is identical to the 3rd-degree offense, with one additional element, the unauthorized vehicle usage must be with the intent of committing or fleeing from a separate class A, B, C, or D felony.
The Class D Felony charge of this crime will probably come with other felony charges. If you are being charged with this crime in the 1st degree, the prosecutor will need to prove both elements of the 3rd degree crime AND that the unauthorized use of a vehicle was related to the separate felony(s).
Charges of unauthorized use of a vehicle may be brought in addition to charges for certain other related offenses under Article 165 of New York Penal Law, including:
Misapplication of Property
Don’t forget that vehicles are considered personal property. If an owner gives you permission to use or hold their vehicle, and then you loan it someone else without the owner’s consent, you could be charged with misapplication of property. You’re at particular risk of being charged if loaning the vehicle puts it at some risk of being damaged or lost.
This crime is a Class A misdemeanor.
Criminal Possession of Stolen Property
If you’re found to be operating or holding someone else’s vehicle without their consent, you can be charged with criminal possession of the stolen property. This crime presumes you held the stolen property — in this case, a vehicle — with the intent to benefit yourself, benefit another person, or stop the owner from recovering their vehicle.
You might be charged with this crime if the owner presses charges before you return their vehicle because they have no way of knowing whether you intended to return the vehicle.
This crime can be charged as a Class A misdemeanor or Class B, C, D, or E felony depending on the value of the stolen property.
What agencies detect, investigate, and prosecute this crime?
As a criminal charge, unauthorized use of a vehicle is prosecuted by the State of New York. Even if you are charged with using another civilian’s vehicle, the State of New York will always be the entity prosecuting you in a court of criminal law. The State prosecutes and punishes unauthorized vehicle usage as a means to protect private property and keep the roads safe.
The State does not press charges on their own. Since the crime requires a lack of consent from the vehicle’s owner, they must first confirm that the owner did not give you consent. This means that the owner will usually be the one pressing charges against you. Here’s why that might be a big deal:
If the vehicle’s owner is threatening to press charges against you but has not yet done so, you might be able to avoid criminal prosecution. It is possible to come to an agreement with them without going to court. If your unauthorized usage was a genuine mistake, they might forgive you and refuse to press charges.
How to avoid prosecution without legal counsel?
Consulting with an experienced attorney is recommended. If you act to avoid prosecution without legal counsel, you run the risk of being charged with bribery or witness tampering. Don’t acquire more criminal charges in an attempt to avoid one.
What are the statutory penalties if you are convicted of this crime?
The statutory penalties for unauthorized use of a vehicle vary considerably depending on the level of the charge you receive. They are listed below:
Class A Misdemeanor / 3rd Degree
This conviction is punishable by a monetary fine, a prison sentence, or both.
The maximum fine is $1,000, and the maximum prison sentence is one year.
The severity of fines and sentencing would depend on your criminal record or lack thereof.
Class E Felony / 2nd Degree
This conviction is punishable by probation, a prison sentence, or both.
The maximum probation or prison sentence is four years.
Remember: It is impossible to commit this crime in the 2nd degree without previously committing it in the 2nd or 3rd degree. If found guilty, you will receive the sentencing of a repeat offender.
Class D Felony / 1st Degree
This conviction is punishable by probation, a prison sentence, or both.
The maximum probation or prison sentence is seven years.
Don’t forget: If charged as a Class D Felony, this crime will probably not be the only felony charge you are facing. Your sentence could be much longer than seven years if you are convicted of multiple felonies.
What are some of the additional consequences of being convicted?
Whether charged as a felony or misdemeanor, unauthorized use of a vehicle is a serious crime that could follow you long after the fine is paid and the prison sentence is served. If convicted, you will have a criminal record for the rest of your life. This can affect your future educational, employment, immigration, and professional opportunities.
The consequences can be especially severe if you are a mechanic. Your livelihood can be put at risk if convicted of this crime:
- If you own a motor repair shop, you can have your registration suspended or revoked.
- If you hope to open a motor repair shop in the future, your application for registration can be refused.
- If you hope to work as a mechanic in someone else’s shop, they might hesitate to hire you if a background check shows you illegally used someone else’s vehicle.
- Your professional reputation will be tarnished if word spreads that you drove or withheld a customer’s vehicle without consent.
Immigrants also face extra consequences for this crime. The good news is that if you are an immigrant, you probably won’t face immediate deportation if convicted. But that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear — any criminal record can make the process of immigration much more difficult. When applying for a green card or full citizenship, you don’t want a misdemeanor or felony on your record.
Legal Defenses to Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle
Nobody wants to go to prison or pay a fine — and nobody wants a conviction for unauthorized use of a vehicle on their record. People may judge you or think less of you because of your criminal record, even though they do not understand the specifics of your case.
Luckily for you, there are powerful legal defenses you can use to fight these charges. They revolve around the elements of the crime that the prosecution need to prove against you, and they include:
Challenging the Claims of Your Actions:
The burden of proof is on the prosecutor to prove that you used a vehicle in an unauthorized manner. Think about how they might try to prove your conduct was illegal.
- Is there video evidence of you driving or using the vehicle?
- Is there proof that the owner never gave you permission to use their vehicle?
- Did a 3rd party, who would not be biased towards you or the owner, witness you using the vehicle?
- If you were allowed to use the vehicle, is there proof of the agreed-upon terms you supposedly broke?
- If you withheld a vehicle, does the owner have proof they tried (and failed) to pick up their vehicle?
Remember: you do not need to prove you are innocent. The prosecutor needs to prove you are guilty. Perhaps you have an alibi for the time of the supposed vehicle usage, or a vehicle of your own that you would have been driving instead. Maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity, and you can cast doubt on whether it was actually you seen using the vehicle.
Maybe you have surveillance footage that shows the owner never came to pick up their car. An experienced defense attorney will know how to challenge the claims that you acted criminally successfully.
Challenging the Claims of Your Intent:
The prosecutor must also prove that you purposely or negligently used the vehicle without the owner’s consent. Think about whether that criteria fits you.
- Is there evidence that you knew you weren’t allowed to use the vehicle?
- Is there proof that you carelessly neglected to ask if you had permission?
- If you were allowed to use the vehicle, do the agreed-upon terms significantly differ from your usage of the vehicle?
Maybe the owner of the vehicle has let you borrow their car for years without asking for permission. Maybe they did or said something to imply you could use the vehicle. Perhaps the agreement you entered was not precise enough to claim that you deviated from it, or your actions aligned closely enough with the agreement that you cannot be said to have acted purposely or negligently.
Again, an experienced defense attorney will know how successfully challenge the claims against you and your criminal intent.
Call us for help
Don’t risk your future. This charge won’t go away on its own, and neither will the consequences if you’re convicted. Our criminal defense attorneys know how to help you avoid fines, prison time, and a lifelong criminal record. Whether you’re a mechanic who can’t afford to lose your business or just a regular New Yorker facing a tough charge, the Blanch Law Firm has your back.
For questions about the unauthorized use of a vehicle in New York, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us. We’re here to help you every step of the way.