There’s a popular video game — or really, series of video games — called Grand Theft Auto. And many states have a crime called grand theft auto, or have some other theft offense that is specific to motor vehicles. In fact, according to this handy chart from the National Conference of State Legislatures, it appears that at least half of all states have a vehicle theft crime. When I told a group of magistrates the other day that North Carolina doesn’t have such an offense, they gave me a collective look that said “we’re too polite to contradict you during class, but you’re hopelessly dim.” So I did a little poking around.
First of all, we really don’t have a separate vehicle theft offense. We have an unauthorized use of a vehicle offense, G.S. 14-72.2, and a crime for stealing gasoline, G.S. 14-72.5, and an offense covering the theft of certain motor vehicle parts, G.S. 14-72.8, and even a special offense for receiving or transferring a stolen vehicle, G.S. 20-106. But there is no distinct statutory offense for stealing a car. Motor vehicle thefts are prosecuted under the general larceny statute, G.S. 14-72, meaning that such a theft is generally a misdemeanor when the vehicle is worth less than $1000, and is a felony when the vehicle is worth more than $1000. [Update: a thoughtful reader pointed out that G.S. 20-106 also covers possession of a stolen vehicle, and it's a felony regardless of value, meaning that a person who steals a car worth less than $1000 can virtually always be charged with a felony offense, even if not felony larceny.]
Nonetheless, it seems to be very common to speak of “larceny of a motor vehicle” as if it were a separate offense. Our appellate courts have used that description many, many times. Just in published cases in the last year, for example, there’s State v. Kidwell, __ N.C. App. __, 720 S.E.2d 795 (2012) (“[D]efendant was indicted for larceny of a motor vehicle.”); State v. Teague, __ N.C. App. __, 715 S.E.2d 919 (2011) (stating that the defendant was sentenced to “15 to 18 months imprisonment for the larceny of a motor vehicle conviction”); State v. Flaugher, __ N.C. App. __, 713 S.E.2d 576 (2011) (“[D]efendant was indicted for . . . larceny of a motor vehicle.”); and State v. Womack, __ N.C. App. __, 712 S.E.2d 193 (2011) (“At the habitual felon sentencing hearing, the State introduced certified copies of documents establishing Defendant’s convictions for larceny of a motor vehicle.”). I suspect that practicing lawyers, officers, and others also talk about larceny of a motor vehicle as if it were a distinct offense.
As far as I can tell, the reason for that is that the computer system used by magistrates to create charging documents in criminal cases has a separate form or option for larceny of a motor vehicle. So if an officer wants to arrest someone for stealing a TV, the magistrate will generate an arrest warrant that is simply captioned “larceny,” but if an officer wants to arrest someone for stealing a car, the magistrate will generate an arrest warrant that is captioned “larceny of a motor vehicle.” Even though both warrants will refer to G.S. 14-72, this practice creates the perception that there is a separate crime called larceny of a motor vehicle. A quick glance at recent AOC data suggests that felony larceny of a motor vehicle is charged a few thousand times per year, while misdemeanor larceny of a motor vehicle is charged a few hundred times per year. Why the computer system creates this artificial distinction, I don’t know. One thoughtful person suggested that it might facilitate the collection of data on stolen vehicles, which might be of interest to the DMV and others.
In any event, I don’t think there’s any harm to the practice. I just thought it was interesting and figured that others might, too.