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Is grand theft auto a crime in Wisconsin?

Grand theft auto in Wisconsin: Is it a crime?

We’ve all heard the crime described by the media.  Grand theft auto is a crime focused on the stealing of a vehicle.  Certainly stealing a vehicle is a crime in Wisconsin, but is it called grand theft auto?

The answer is no.  Grand theft auto is not a crime in Wisconsin.  But the underlying conduct is still criminal.

If you are charged with stealing a car, contact Meyer Van Severen, S.C. immediately.  Our criminal defense attorneys specialize on providing the best criminal defense representation throughout Wisconsin.  We answer phones 24/7 at (414) 270-0202.  Below, criminal defense attorney Ben Van Severen explains why grand theft auto isn’t a crime in Wisconsin:


What is grand theft auto?

According to legalmatch.com, grand theft auto is:

… a serious crime that involves stealing a vehicle with the intent to keep it permanently.  Stealing a car for the purpose of taking it around the block, or joyriding, would not be considered grand theft auto.  If a person were to steal the vehicle and then go on to sell any part of it, then a charge of grand theft auto is likely.

That sounds a lot like a crime we defend in Wisconsin.  It’s called operating a vehicle without owner’s consent.

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Operating a vehicle without owner’s consent: the charge for stealing a car in Wisconsin

Section 943.23(2) of the Wisconsin Statutes prohibits operating a vehicle without owner’s consent:

“…Whoever intentionally takes and drivers any vehicle without the consent of the owner is guilty of the following:” a first offense a Class H felony.  A second or subsequent offense is a Class G felony.

Operating a vehicle without owner’s consent, like all other crimes, has elements that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  Certainly without these elements, the government should fail prosecuting you.  Wisconsin Jury Instruction Criminal 1464describes “taking and driving a vehicle without the owner’s consent”:

  • The defendant intentionally took a vehicle without the consent of the owner; and
  • The defendant intentionally drove the vehicle without the consent of the owner; and
  • The defendant knew that the owner of the vehicle did not consent to taking and driving the vehicle.

The term “drive” means to exercise physical control over the speed and direction of a vehicle while is is in motion.


Affirmative defense: abandoning the vehicle within 24 hours

According to Wis. Stat. sec. 943.23(3m):

It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution for [this violation] if the defendant abandoned the vehicle without damage within 24 hours after the vehicle was taken from the possession of the owner.  An affirmative defense under this subsection mitigates the offense to a Class A misdemeanor.  A defendant who raises this affirmative defense has the burden of proving this defense by a preponderance of the evidence.

This is certainly a little problematic.  Let’s assume the defendant returned the vehicle within 24 hours.  It’s his burden to prove he abandoned the vehicle within 24 hours.  If he can’t do that, this affirmative defense does not apply. For example, if the defendant steals a vehicle, does not damage it, and leaves it in a parking lot 23 hours later, does the defense apply?  It certainly does.  But how will you prove it?  Unless there are security cameras, other witnesses, or the victims locate the vehicle within 24 hours, the defense will be difficult to prove.


A man commits grand theft auto.
While the term “grand theft auto” doesn’t refer to a specific crime in Wisconsin, the underlying actions are still certainly criminal.

What if I’m not the one who took the vehicle from the owner?

This is certainly an interesting question.  The law does not require that the driver of the vehicle be the one who actually took the vehicle from the owner.  To clarify: A subsequent driver still faces criminal liability.

Bass v. State, 29 Wis.2d 201, 138 N.W.2d 154 (1965) provides an example of this situation.  The victim in this case left his vehicle at a mechanic overnight.  An employee of the mechanic drove the vehicle to a friend’s house that night.  Police arrested the employee on his way to his friend’s.  And then, prosecutors obviously charged him.  The Supreme Court of Wisconsin held that the leaving of the car at the station overnight did not constitute implied consent to use the car.  When Bass drove the car for his own purposes it wasn’t connected with the purposes the owner had left the vehicle overnight.  He committed the offense of operating without the owner’s consent.

Additionally, State v. Robbins, 43 Wis.2d 478, 168 N.W. 544 (1969) dealt with a similar issue.  Firstly, the defendant’s uncle took a vehicle from an auto dealer.  Eventually, police arrested the suspect for driving the vehicle.  The court stated that “the statutory language ‘intentionally takes and drives any vehicle without the consent of the owner’ does not require that the driver of the stolen vehicle be the person who actually took the vehicle from the rightful owner.”


Contact Meyer Van Severen, S.C. for top criminal defense

The criminal defense attorneys at Meyer Van Severen, S.C. are certainly skilled advocates of individuals facing criminal charges.   And although grand theft auto is not a crime in Wisconsin, taking and driving without owner’s consent it.  Call us today if you’re facing criminal charges.  We answer phones 24/7 at (414) 270-0202.