Carjacking in California: The Law and Defenses

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You might think that the term “carjacking” only applies when an attacker violently rips the driver out of a motor vehicle at gunpoint.

The crime of carjacking would apply in that scenario, but the crime of carjacking applies to other criminal acts as well.

Put simply, carjacking in California occurs when a person takes a motor vehicle away from a driver or passenger by threat or by use of force. 

Carjacking is a serious crime. If convicted of carjacking, you potentially face a lengthy prison sentence. Consequently, you need a lawyer who is up to the challenge of defending your rights.

At the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, your rights are our priority. 

California Penal Code §215

Penal Code §215 is California’s carjacking statute. Section 215 defines carjacking as:

  • The taking of a motor vehicle;
  • Through the use of force or fear;
  • While it is in the possession of another;
  • From the person directly, from the person’s immediate presence, or from the immediate presence of a passenger;
  • Against the will of the driver or passenger; and
  • With the intent to deprive the person of the vehicle permanently or temporarily.

The prosecution carries the burden of proving each of these elements beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict you. 

Other Charges Associated with Carjacking

Carjacking charges fall under the category of theft crimes in California. However, carjacking is more closely associated with robbery than with simple theft.

Under Penal Code §215, a person can simultaneously face both robbery and carjacking charges. However, you cannot receive punishment for robbery and carjacking charges arising from the same criminal event. 


An attempt to commit carjacking is also a crime. Attempted carjacking in California applies when a person intends to commit a carjacking but does not accomplish the act.

For example, you could face attempted carjacking charges if the police say you opened the driver’s door and tried to pull the driver out, but the driver sped away. 


You could also face kidnapping charges for carjacking if you drive away with someone in the car. Under Penal Code §209.5, kidnapping someone to help complete a carjacking is an incredibly serious offense.

Although you could get probation in an unusual case, the statute provides for a life sentence with the possibility of parole if the judge believes incarceration in prison is appropriate.

Carjacking, Grand Theft Auto, and Joyriding

You may wonder what the difference is between carjacking, grand theft auto, and joyriding. Grand theft auto in California is stealing a car.

No force or threat of violence is used to get the driver or passenger to comply, as is necessary for a carjacking charge. Similarly, joyriding is taking a car without permission and riding around in it.

However, unlike grand theft auto, joyriding does not require someone to intend to permanently deprive the owner of the car.

Additionally, auto burglary is breaking into a locked car with the intent to steal something or commit a felony after gaining access.

Grand theft auto is a felony. However, joyriding and auto burglary could be either a misdemeanor or a felony.

Defenses Against Carjacking Charges

There is no “best” defense for all carjacking charges, as your defense depends heavily on the facts of your case. But here are a few common defenses:

Mistaken Identity

Researchers have determined that eyewitness identifications are often unreliable.

Several scientific studies have shown that eyewitness identification is particularly unreliable in stressful situations—like being the victim of a carjacking—and when people try to make cross-racial identifications.

Even if the alleged victim identified you as the carjacker, you could show that the eyewitness was wrong with the help of an experienced trial attorney.

Also, you can attack the identification procedures the police used if they violated your due process rights. 


You might also have the affirmative defense of consent to rely on in the right circumstances. For instance, there can be no carjacking charge if the alleged victim consented to let you use their car. 

Reasonable Doubt Defense

Since the prosecution has the burden of proving each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, a skilled criminal defense attorney can simply poke holes in the prosecution’s case to establish doubt.

A good reasonable doubt defense attacks the prosecution’s case from all angles, exposes its weaknesses, and convinces the jury that doubt remains.

And if doubt remains, the prosecution has not met its burden, and the jury must find you not guilty. 

Carjacking Sentence in California

Carjacking in California is a felony that can result in three, five, or nine years in a California state prison. But the judge has discretion.

Based on the circumstances and your criminal record, they can sentence you to probation instead of incarceration. 


Attempted carjacking in California is also a felony. According to Penal Code §664, the maximum penalty for attempted carjacking is one-half of the maximum penalty for carjacking.

Accordingly, you could serve up to four and a half years in prison after a conviction for attempted carjacking. 


The California Penal Code contains several other laws that could impose a harsher sentence on the accused than §215 requires.

The prosecution could claim that you are a gang member, or that the victim suffered great bodily injury.

Furthermore, armed carjacking falls under California’s “10-20-Life” sentencing enhancement for gun crimes. As a result, using a gun to commit armed carjacking carries at least ten years in prison.

Firing a gun while committing an armed carjacking carries a minimum twenty-year sentence. And if you cause great injury or kill someone by firing a gun while carjacking someone, that crime carries a minimum twenty-five-year state prison sentence and a maximum term of life in prison. 

California’s Three-Strikes Law

Carjacking is a violent felony. Therefore, California Penal Code section §667—better known as the “Three-Strikes Law”—applies to a carjacking conviction.

Under this law, the court could double your sentence for a conviction that counts as a second strike. And if it’s your “third strike,” the statute mandates twenty-five years to life in prison. 

Experience When You Need It Most

Many lawyers will claim that they put your needs first. At the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, we pride ourselves on our commitment to you, our client.

What sets us apart from the rest is our commitment to you, our level of experience, and the fact that Mr. Armstrong is certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Specialization in criminal law.

Few firms can make such a claim. Call 619-737-1973 or visit us online to schedule a free and confidential case evaluation.

Author Photo

Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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