Carjacking 101

Carjacking 101

Carjacking is basically a form of robbery, where a motor vehicle is taken from someone through force or the threat of injury. It’s a much more serious crime than auto theft, and under California PC215, is classified as a felony offense.

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However, an alleged carjacking must meet four distinct elements in order for the accused to be convicted of this crime. These elements can help form the basis of a legal defense against a charge of carjacking.

Carjacking is a crime under Section 215 of California’s Penal Code. A defendant can be charged with carjacking if he or she:

  1. took a motor vehicle
  2. from the possession of another
  3. using force or fear to take the vehicle
  4. with the intent to permanently or temporarily possess the vehicle

It is important to note that the “possession” element does not require a victim of a carjacking to be in the car at the time of the carjacking.

For example, if Laura walks up to her rental car in a parking lot and finds someone has broken into the car and is attempting to start it, the “possession” element is satisfied because the car is in the immediate presence of Laura, even though she is not inside the car and does not own the car.

Carjacking is a crime against possession, not ownership. The victim of a carjacking can be the owner, driver, or passenger. For this reason, a person who owns a car and tries to reclaim it from someone else – such as a friend who borrowed the car – using force or fear can still be charged with carjacking.

“Force or fear” means the use of physical force or the threat of physical harm against a victim or victim’s family, property, or another person present during the incident. For example, a carjacker who brandishes a small pocket knife and orders the driver and passengers to get out of a car has used threats of injury to obtain possession of a vehicle.

Penalties for carjacking under California 215 PC

Carjacking is a felony offense in the state of California. Penalties for carjacking range from probation and a fine to imprisonment in state prison for three, five, or nine years. Defendants who injure a carjacking victim, use a gun, commit the offense as part of a gang, or kidnap someone during the carjacking typically receive stiffer sentences.

Legal defenses against carjacking

Some common legal defenses against a charge of carjacking are:


A defendant cannot be found guilty of carjacking if they had the consent of the possessor to take the vehicle – take note of the discussion of possession vs. ownership, above.

Lack of force or fear

If the accused did not use force or fear to take away a car from another person, they should not be convicted of this offense. For example, if someone goes out to their driveway and discovers their car has been stolen, the defendant has not committed a carjacking. However, the defendant could be potentially prosecuted for grand theft auto.

Mistaken identity

If the accused isn’t the person who committed the crime, their defense strategy may include casting doubt upon eyewitness testimony and/or establishing an alibi by introducing evidence that they were not in the vicinity of the crime when it occurred.