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Breaking or Entering a Motor Vehicle

March 26th, 2010
By Jeff Welty

Under G.S. 14-56, it is a Class I felony to “break[] or enter[] any . . . motor vehicle . . . containing any . . . thing of value” with the intent to commit larceny or any felony. It sounds straightforward enough, but I was recently asked whether breaking into a toolbox affixed behind the cab of a pickup truck violates the statute. That led me to several other interesting issues, and my interlocutor was kind enough to permit me to summarize my research here. (She granted me a waiver of my own policy of not blogging about individual questions.)

Let’s start with some easy scenarios and then move to the tougher ones.

1. Obviously, breaking into the passenger compartment of a car violates the statute.

2. What about breaking into the trunk? This is included, too. The court of appeals considered the scope of the statute in State v. Nealy, 64 N.C. App. 663 (1983). Even the dissenting judge, who took the narrowest view of the statute, opined that it “proscribe[s] the breaking or entering of compartments of a motor vehicle in which property is customarily carried, i.e., the passenger compartment and the trunk area.”

3. How about the engine compartment? No property is usually carried there, so does a person commit breaking or entering a motor vehicle if he pops the hood with the necessary criminal intent? Yes. Although the dissenting judge in Nealy wouldn’t have gone so far, the majority upheld the defendant’s conviction based on reaching in and opening the hood of a vehicle, so the statute covers the engine compartment, too.

4. What if a person crawls under a vehicle and tries to remove a part, like the drive shaft? Now we’ve gone too far, probably. I don’t know of a North Carolina case on point, but in State v. Gore, 456 S.E.2d 419 (S.C. Ct. App. 1995), the court interpreted a similar South Carolina statute as applying only to those who break into the passenger compartment or a separate area such as “the trunk area, the engine compartment, [or] the gas tank,” and rejected the argument that attempting to remove a part from the vehicle’s underside violated the statute. Of course, such conduct is still illegal, it just doesn’t appear to be covered under G.S. 14-56.

5. What about toolboxes attached to trucks? This was the question that started it all. I wasn’t able to find an in-state case on point, but I have little doubt that an attached toolbox counts as part of the motor vehicle to which it is affixed. Functionally, it’s an aftermarket trunk. Cases from Texas confirm this analysis. State v. Ford, 860 S.W.2d 731 (Tex. Ct. App. Beaumont 1993) (breaking into toolbox “bolted and welded to the bed” of a truck constituted burglary of a vehicle under Texas law and was analogous to breaking into a vehicle’s trunk); Hopkins v. State, 864 S.W.2d 119 (Tex Ct. App. 14 Dist. 1993) (holding that “removal of tools from a toolbox attached to the bed of a pickup truck constituted entry into part of the vehicle” and so supported a conviction of burglary of a motor vehicle). As a sidebar, it’s fitting that these cases are from Texas. Over 26% of all vehicles there are pickups, tops in the nation, and the large, customized pickups often found there have been given the sobriquet “Texas Cadillacs.” As a second sidebar, I suppose that the same analysis would apply to an enclosed luggage carriers that is attached to the roof rack of a vehicle, although I couldn’t quickly find any cases on point.

6. What if there’s no toolbox, but a person reaches into the open bed of pickup truck with unlawful intent? Although a closer question, this, too, likely violates the statute. Cases from several jurisdictions — not just Texas! — have agreed on this point. People v. Frey, 467 N.E.2d 302 (Ill. Ct. App. 5 Dist. 1984) (“The bed of a pick-up truck is as much a part thereof as is, for example, the passenger cab or the truck compartment. We conclude that an unauthorized, knowing entry into the bed of a pick-up truck with intent to steal something therefrom is an act properly characterized and chargeable as burglary.”); State v. Cloud, 324 N.W.2d 287 (S.D. 1982) (burglary statute prohibits entry into any “structure” such as a “motor vehicle . . . or any portion thereof,” which includes the “open [bed] of a pickup truck”); People v. Banuelos, 577 P.2d 305 (Colo. Ct. App. 1977) (entering the open bed of a pickup truck constitutes entering a motor vehicle for purposes of the Colorado trespass statute).

Has anyone had other issues come up regarding what counts as part of the “motor vehicle” for purposes of G.S. 14-56? If so, please shoot me an email or post a comment.

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6 Responses to “Breaking or Entering a Motor Vehicle”

  1. Brandon Parrott says:

    I used to be a property crimes investigator with the Durham PD, and am now a Fraud detective. I remember that we had a big problem with people stealing catalitic converters off of cars/trucks and taking them to junk yards selling as scrap since they contain titanium and various other precious metals. I also had a case where they popped the hood of a Jeep Cherokee and stole the radiator for the copper in it. It would seem to me if you can be charged for opening a hood and stealing a battery, radiator, etc and you could be charged with reaching in the bed of a pickup and taking a weedeater then if you stole from under the car it should also be B&EMV. It seems contradictory if you steal from anywhere on the top of the car enclosed or otherwise it’s B&EMV, but underneath is what … tampering with MV with intent to steal?

  2. john says:

    so what about breaking into a gas tank on the side of a car in north carolina?

  3. Anna Goodwin says:

    My entire office debated this question a few years ago. We had an habitual felon charged with B&E MV and no other felonies. He had reached into the open bed of a truck and stolen some tools. Our vote was he had committed mis. larceny. While it is Break or Enter, we couldn’t figure out what he had broken or entered. This included prosecutors with 10+ years experience and defense attorneys turned prosecutors with 10+ years too. We also couldn’t find any case law either in NC. I would actually be more likely to believe that by going into the hood of the car, and trying to retrieve parts under the hood that you have Breaking or Entering there, since you don’t actually have to take anything for the felony.

  4. MY SON WAS WALKING HOME WITH AOTHER PERSON THAT OPENED A CAR DOOR. THE 18 YEAR OLD HAS CONFESSED TO OPENING THE CAR DOOR, THE SHERRIF MATCHED HIS FINGERS. HE IS FACING FROM PROBATION TO A FELONY 3-5 TERM. WHEN MY SON SAW HIM MOVE TO OPEN THE CAR DOOR HE LEFT AND RAN HOME AS I HAVE INTRUCTED TO WHEN VANDALISM OR WORSE IS ABOUT TO OCCUR. THE PERSON CONFESSED THAT HE ACTED ALONE AND MY SOON RAN HOME. HE IS 16 YEARS OLD BY 1 MONTH. THE ACUTUALY PERPETRATOR SAILD MY SON WAS WALKING AND HAD NOTHING TO DUE WITH THE CAR IN QUESTION. HOW CAN TWO PEOPLE BE CHARGED WITH THE SAME CRIME. NOTHING WAS STOLEN. ANOTHER HOEM OWER IDENTIFIED THE PERP. I HAVE A LAWYER, BUT THE NC STATUE 14, 14-56 STAES THAT SMOETHING NEEDS TO BE STOLEN. MY SON HAS 76K FOR COLLEGE, HE CAN BUY ANYTHING HE WANTS. THE PERP PLEADED OUT, HOW DO I GET MY SON OUT OF THIS DEBACLE? THANKS D. BARKER

  5. D. Long says:

    I was in mt. airy with a church group, we walked out of snappy’s and crossed the street and made it past approx. four or five stores when the police came up and asked to see my i.d. Long story short, a woman said she saw a guy with a green shirt who looked like me open the door of a truck or van and remove something. The owner of the vehicle was located and said his wallet was missing out of it. I was charged with b and e of mv and misd. larceny and misd. possession of stolen property. The property was not found on me or found at all for that matter. The b and e is listed as a misdemeanor. What should I do?

  6. Cindy says:

    My son was walking around the neighborhood with his friends. He said he was curious to know what people kept in the bed of a pick up truck. He saw a box located in the bed of a truck. He looked inside the box and continued walking down the street with his friends. They were stopped by Police Officers and asked if anyone touched the truck up the street. My son replied yes and explained to the officer that he was curious and placed his hand in the box located in the bed of the truck. He did not take anything out of the vehicle nor the box, which was confirmed by the Police Officer and the owner of the vehicle. He was charged with Felony B&E Statute 14-56. Obviously he did not have any intent to take anything because he didn’t and he was honest with the police officer. He is 16 yrs old. What can we do with his case?

    Thanks for your time…

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