California Penal Code Section 215 is that statute that punishes the crime of carjacking. You face carjacking charges if you take a car from someone else using fear or force. Carjacking is considered a felony in California. Possible punishment could include serving nine years in prison and a strike under the California Three Strikes Law since it considers it a violent felony. If a crime is under the Three Strikes Law, you must serve not less than 85% of your sentence before you are eligible for parole.

You are charged with first-degree murder if you or your accomplice unintentionally cause someone else’s death during your crime commission. You could also receive sentence enhancement if the victim sustained injuries, you used a gun, you were serving a gang, or a kidnapping happened.

At Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we are devoted to helping defendants facing carjacking and other driving crime charges avoid harsh punishment. As experienced defense lawyers helping clients in Riverside, CA, we thoroughly review the charges you face and build strong defenses on your behalf.

Definition Of Carjacking Per California Law

In California, carjacking is a serious problem, and the judicial system handles it strictly. Under California PC 215, carjacking occurs when you feloniously take a car from someone else’s immediate presence or in their possession, against their consent and intending to temporarily or permanently deprive them of the car, using fear or force. In layman's language, carjacking refers to using fear or force to take a car from a driver’s or passenger’s immediate possession.

Elements Of California Carjacking Offense

The judge can only convict you of a PC 215 violation if the prosecuting agency proves elements of the crime. These include:

  1. The victim had possession of the car.
  2. You took the vehicle from the victim’s immediate presence. The victim could be the driver or passenger.
  3. You took the vehicle against the victim’s will. You also used force or fear.
  4. You intended to deprive that victim of carjacking either temporarily or permanently.

In the next sections, you learn phrases and terms used in carjacking litigation to understand the legal definitions.

Immediate Presence and Possession

Many think carjacking crimes occur when gun-brandishing perpetrators order motorists and passengers out of cars and drive off with the vehicles. Using this presumption, you can tell that the vehicles are in the motorists’ and passengers’ immediate presence and possession.

Speaking of immediate presence, the vehicle must be within the plaintiff’s control, observation, and reach so that they could have possession of it if you didn't use fear or force to take the car. California carjacking law broadens the definition beyond scenarios where the plaintiff is operating the vehicle or inside it.

For example, you walk into someone else’s garage and start their car’s engine intending to take it. The owner dashes out and jumps into the car as you drive from the garage. The plaintiff/ owner demands that you give back their vehicle. You respond while screaming at the victim; hence, making them fear you. Out of fear, the victim jumps out of the vehicle.

The above example could appear like a grand theft auto crime, but it becomes a carjacking offense the instant the victim feared to retain the position of their vehicle and jumped out of it.

Taking a Car Against Their Will

Taking a vehicle from someone else suggests that you take its possession and move it regardless of the distance. Even though you cannot move the vehicle, you could still face attempted carjacking charges if the prosecution proved the rest of the crime elements.

Against someone else’s will means without their consent. Someone consents to something when they do so voluntarily and freely, not through fear or force. Consent requires positive cooperation and free will. Therefore, the crime element is easily proved unless the plaintiff voluntarily offers you the car.

Using Force Or Fear

Under California carjacking law, fear and force have the same meaning. The law states that the coercive effect that fear induces through threats is a form of force. Also, the law suggests that fear means the fear of harm to one’s relatives, property, or persons present at the incident scene.

The fear element occurs when the plaintiff complies with your unlawful demand for their vehicle. The prosecution could show this element as long as you use enough fear or force to overcome the plaintiff's resistance. Also, the victim’s resistance does not disapprove of the fear/ force element.

Additionally, the plaintiff does not even have to be consciously aware that you used fear or force to take someone else’s car’s possession. For instance, you could still face carjacking charges if an infant or unconscious person were in the car.

The Intent To Deprive

California theft crimes require an intent to deprive the property owner permanently. However, carjacking offenses require the intent to deprive the driver or passenger of the vehicle temporarily or permanently. It doesn't matter whether you carjack another person’s car for sale, keep it for yourself, or borrow it for a short time. Any taking attracts charges.

Potential Legal Defenses To Carjacking

Per the law, you are innocent until proven guilty when facing carjacking charges. The prosecuting agency bears the burden of proving your guilt. The evidence they present in court must remove all doubt about your guilt. Together with your defense lawyer, you could bring various defenses, hanging on the circumstances surrounding your case. These include:

Lack of Force / Fear

The prosecution could not charge you with carjacking if you did not use force or fear to take someone else’s car. For example, if you took the victim’s vehicle while they were absent, you do not meet the crime element of using fear or force to take the car. However, you could still face serious charges for the conduct.

For example, you were admiring another person’s vehicle in a parking bay. You noticed that the owner left the keys inside the vehicle and decided to drive away, leaving the driver standing outside. If arrested, the prosecutor cannot file carjacking charges against you. The reason is that you did not use fear or force when taking the vehicle. In this scenario, the court could convict you of joyriding or grand theft auto.

False Accusation

At times, as a law-abiding citizen, bad things could happen to you because someone else conducted themselves with bad intentions. Unfortunately, someone could be wrongly accused of a crime because another person wants to see that you are punished. If facing carjacking charges, your defense lawyer should scrutinize the case independently from the arresting incident. They should review all case facts and evidence to ensure that the justice system does not compromise your rights.


If the plaintiff had consented to you taking their vehicle, the court could not convict you for a PC 215 violation. By definition, carjacking only occurs when you take the car against the passenger’s or driver’s will. Also, note that consent happens when the victim allows you to use their car. For example, if your neighbor allowed you to use their van to move your items, but you took it for a spin, the court cannot convict you of carjacking. However, you could face grand theft auto charges in place of carjacking.

Mistaken Identity

The court could wrongfully convict you if they primarily rely on eyewitness testimony. Due to the crime’s nature, witnesses and victims alike could mistakenly identify the culprit. Carjacking victims are often under great stress and are often fixated on the gun instead of the perpetrator's face.

Several advocacy organizations and legal experts argue that eyewitness mistakes are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in California. Because of this fact, you want to hire an aggressive defense lawyer to challenge the eyewitnesses’ testimonies that the prosecution considers the evidence against you.

Ensure your lawyer challenges these testimonies because of their notorious unreliability and investigates if the victim could identify the perpetrator. If the victim cannot identify the perpetrator, your lawyer could challenge the prosecutor’s evidence. Your lawyer should also review the law enforcement reports to notice inconsistencies.

“Claim Of Right” is Not a Legal Defense

One defense that your lawyer cannot present in court is the claim of right. If someone else took your vehicle and you spotted them driving on the highway, the law does not allow you to take it back using fear or force. Under California PC 215, carjacking is an offense against immediate possession, not ownership.

For example, you want to reunite with your ex-lover. One evening, you sneaked into their vehicle, and when they noticed and began screaming, you dashed out of the car, grabbed your ex-lover, and pushed them into the vehicle. Next, you drove to a far town where the police flag you down and take you into custody.

In court, you claimed that you co-owned the car with your ex-lover, which is a claim of right, and that you did not violate PC 215. In this case, you should know that the law does not require proof of an intent to deprive the victim of a car permanently. Violation of PC 215 is an offense against possession rather than ownership. Therefore, you cannot use the claim of right as a defense strategy.

Sentencing, Penalties, And Punishment Under 215 PC

California law considers a PC 215 violation a felony offense. Upon conviction, possible punishment includes:

  • Serving in state prison for 3, 5, or 9 years.
  • Paying no more than $10,000 in fine.
  • A one-year jail term plus probation.

The court convicts you for every victim present in the vehicle during your crime commission. Adding to these penalties, California law has various sending enhancements applicable to PC 215 violations. The enhancements increase your punishment under particular circumstances. The following are examples of sentence enhancements:

Great Bodily Harm

If someone sustained great bodily injuries during your carjacking crime commission, the court could impose three to six additional years to your prison sentence under California PC 12022.7. The enhancement is consecutive to the punishment you receive upon conviction fo0r carjacking.

Criminal Street Gang Enhancement, PC 186.22

If the prosecuting agency proves beyond a reasonable doubt that you violated PC 215 as a street gang accomplice, gang enhancement becomes applicable in your case. Under this sentence enhancement, possible punishment includes a 15-year to life imprisonment adding to your carjacking sentence.

The “10-20-life ‘use A Gun And You’re Done'” Law, Penal Code 12022.53 PC

Under this sentence enhancement, you are subject to 10 years in prison if you use a gun, 20 years if you fire the gun, and 25-years-to-life for killing or causing serious harm to someone else using the gun. All these gang enhancements are additional and consecutive to the punishment you receive for the initial carjacking crime.

Three Strikes Law

As mentioned above, California law considers carjacking as a violent felony. Because of this, a carjacking conviction leads to a ‘strike’ on your criminal record under the California three strikes law. Remember that the strike is additional to your carjacking conviction. Also, you must serve not less than 85% of your prison sentence before you are eligible for parole.

You are subject to a second strike if you face a subsequent felony charge and already have a strike on your criminal record. As a second striker, you face doubling the sentence in addition to the carjacking penalty. If you face a third felony charge and already are a second striker, you are subject to a third strike. Your charges attract a mandatory minimum sentence of 25-years-to-life in prison.

Felony-murder Rule

When someone else dies while you or your accomplice commits a carjacking offense, you are subject to first-degree murder under the California felony murder rule. Even if the victim’s death did not further the carjacking offense, the rule applies as long as it links to the crime. For example, you could also be subject to the felony murder rule if the victim suffered heart failure due to shock the incident induces.

Immigration / Removal

Since violation of PC 215 is an aggravated felony under California law, upon conviction could result in additional enhancements like being removed if you are an alien or immigrant or deportation.

Crimes Charged Together With Carjacking

Hanging on the case’s facts, there are several offenses that prosecutors could file charges in the place of or in addition to carjacking. Examples of these offenses are but are not limited to:

Penal Code 211 Pc Robbery

You violate California PC 211 when you take another person’s property from their body or immediate possession when done through fear or force. Technically, carjacking is robbing another person of their car. The California justice system amended carjacking laws to punish car robbery more seriously. Remember that robbery crimes attract just 5-year prison sentences, whereas carjacking attracts 9.

You could face charges for the two crimes in the same incident. For instance, you approach a motorist, forcefully demand her purse, and order them to alight the vehicle so you could take it. The prosecution could charge you with both carjacking and robbery of the purse.

In California, robbery also attracts felony charges. If convicted, possible sentencing includes serving not less than two and not above five years in state prison. But, if you face conviction for carjacking and robbery simultaneously, the law only allows you to face punishment for one of the crimes. Therefore, the judge should set aside punishment for one of the crimes.

Grand Theft Auto “GTA”

You face charges for grand theft auto if you steal a car. Note that carjacking and DTA are different crimes and the major differences include:

  • The law does not require that you use force or fear as elements of the crime.
  • You must intend to deprive the car owner of it permanently. Speaking of carjacking, you intend to deprive the car owner of it temporarily or permanently.

California law prosecuted GTA as a wobbler. That means that the prosecutor could file a felony charge or a misdemeanor charge, hanging on your case’s circumstance and criminal record.

Upon a misdemeanor conviction, you could face not more than one year in jail or $1,000 in fines. Upon a felony conviction, you could serve in prison for not more than four years, six years if the vehicle is more than $65,000 in value, and $10,000 in fines.

Joyriding / Auto Theft

Also known as auto theft, joyriding happens when you unlawfully drive a car belonging to another person without permission. Like a PC 215 violation, the law does not require that you have the intention to deprive the driver of it permanently. Instead, you commit the offense the instant you unlawfully drive someone else’s vehicle. Like GTA, you don't have to use fear or force to commit a joyriding offense.

In California, joyriding is considered a wobbler, but the prosecution charges it as a misdemeanor most of the time. Upon a misdemeanor conviction, you serve up to one year in jail. Upon a felony conviction, you serve not more than three years in prison or $5,000 in fines. However, the judge could instead sentence you to four years in prison and order you to pay $10,000 in fines if the car in question is a fire truck, police vehicle, or an ambulance.

Auto Burglary

If the vehicle you joyride, steal, or carjack was locked during your crime commission, the prosecution could add charges like auto burglary. In California, auto burglary is a wobbler. A misdemeanor charge attracts a one-year jail sentence, while a felony charge attracts not more than three years in prison.


California PC 209.5 punishes the crime of kidnapping during a carjacking incident. If, when violating PC 215, you drive away with another person in the vehicle, you could face kidnapping charges. Note that California law prosecutes this specific aggravated crime together with carjacking offenses. The crime requires that:

  • You move the victim to a substantial distance during a carjacking event.
  • The movement causes a higher risk of harm to the plaintiff.

For instance, rather than ordering the motorist out of the vehicle, you wave a weapon like a gun and demand that they cross over to the passenger seat. She does as you say, and you drive off with the driver inside the vehicle. If arrested, you could face both carjacking and kidnapping offenses.

If convicted of kidnapping, possible sentencing could be life imprisonment but with the possibility of parole. However, the judge cannot convict you for both offenses. If found guilty for both crimes, the court could dismiss the carjacking conviction and sentence you for the kidnapping offense.


The instant you use violence or force to remove a motorist outside their car or move over the passenger seat, you are said to commit battery. As a result, the prosecutor could file PC 242 charges in addition to carjacking ones. In California, assault and battery are considered a misdemeanor, and the possible penalty is serving not more than six months in county jail.

But if you cause serious bodily harm to the plaintiff or use a weapon to facilitate the carjacking crime, the prosecution could file charges for battery with serious bodily harm together with assault with a deadly weapon. These offenses are wobblers and could attract an additional prison sentence of four years.

Call a Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

Dealing with the consequences of carjacking or other driving crimes is challenging for defendants. But, if facing these crimes, you are in a worse position if you don't have an experienced defense attorney in your corner fighting for your rights. You deserve a strong defense and representation; so, don't face the court alone.

At Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we have the prerequisite knowledge, skills, and experience handling driving offenses. We are well seasoned and can assure you that our dedication, persistence, and competence remain unmatched. Our team of lawyers is well known and respected by prosecutors and judges throughout California. Reach us by phone at 951-946-6366, and we will schedule a non-obligatory and cost-free consultation.