Autotheft Charges

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America has long had a love affair with the automobile.  Cars and trucks are not only a means of travel and conveyance, but they’re also status symbols.  Many drivers have a car or truck they’ve always wanted to own – whether it be out of emotional attachment for something their parents once had, or the traditional “dream car” they’ve always imagined themselves in.

Getting that car should be a personal triumph.  Unfortunately for some getting the car of their dreams can turn into a nightmare.  What happens when you purchase a stolen vehicle?

When we are speaking about the dangers of purchasing a stolen vehicle, for the most part we are talking about private sales of used cars (although it’s always possible this could happen through a dealership).  Intrinsically, there are generally more built in protections from dealing with stolen property when going through a large, established car dealership.  These same protections are, obviously, not there when you go car shopping through online classifieds.

Two questions that should immediately spring to mind should you purchase a stolen vehicle are:  1) Am I in trouble?; and 2) What happens to the car?  The answers are necessarily apparent and they can be complex considering the convergence of civil and criminal law.

The most likely thing you could be charged with after purchasing a stolen vehicle would be “Receiving Stolen Property.”  In most jurisdictions, this charge includes language requiring that the person in possession of the property needed to know it was stolen, had a belief it was probably stolen, or should have known that the property was stolen.  The first half of this is simple – buy a car when you know it is stolen, then you certainly are in line for being charged with receiving stolen property (you could even be charged with inchoate offenses such as conspiracy to the theft).

What warrants a circumstance when you should have reasonably known it was stolen?  Well, when you purchase a car from a registered dealer there arguably is a belief that all sales are on the up and up.  But what about when you purchase a car as is, from someone in a parking lot after midnight, and they tell you this is a cash only deal?  What if the person selling the car doesn’t have a key for it, and instead has a screwdriver pushed into the ignition switch?

There are endless scenarios here, but it is important to remember that the police and prosecuting attorneys are the ones who decide if a given scenario will result in charges being filed.  If you live in an area with zealous prosecution, you could find yourself in handcuffs.

What happens to the car (after it is discovered to be stolen)?  Stolen property is generally seized as evidence in a criminal case.  Once that case is disposed of, the property is normally returned to its rightful owner.  That means your dream car is going back to the person it was originally taken from.  Meanwhile, all the money you spent on purchasing that car is gone.

After the stolen car is seized by the police, there are typically two most likely avenues to try to get your money back.  The number one thing you should do is simply ask the person or company who sold you the car to return your money.  Assuming that does not work, the first thing you could do is file a civil suit, suing for your money back.  If the seller is charged criminally, you could seek restitution through the criminal court system (this can often take a long time for recovery of funds and sometimes never results in full restitution).

It is best to avoid ever finding yourself in these situations with an ounce of prevention.  A number of services out there offer VIN (vehicle identification number) checks either for a small fee or for free. Checking the VIN of a vehicle is a good way to find out if a given car has been reported stolen.  Another thing to do is trust your gut feeling.  If a sale seems too good to be true or something is inherently fishy about the transaction, don’t buy the car.  Perhaps ask the seller if he would be okay with you having the local police check the VIN for you?

Please remember that the specific laws and regulations surrounding car sales and crimes vary state to state, and sometimes town to town.  Specific questions and concerns should always be directed to qualified attorneys attorney such as the Criminal Defense Attorney Pottstown PA locals trust with specific knowledge of the geographic area where a matter has arisen.

rick linn attorney at law LLCThanks to authors at Rick Linn LLC for their insight into Criminal Defense Law.