Joy riding or operating a motor vehicle without the owner’s consent can be a violation of the law under several different sections of NJSA 2C:20-10.
The defendant will be charged with a fourth degree offense if his intent was not to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle, but instead took the vehicle without the owner’s consent and with the intent to return it. This crime is distinguishable from auto theft because the mens rea or state of mind of the defendant is not to permanently take the car. For that matter, many theft related offenses rely upon the intent of the accused to determine the severity of the crime. Intent is subjective, meaning the actor is the only one who truly knows what he meant to do. But in a court of law, the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident will allow the finder of fact to make an objective determination as to what the defendant’s intent was.
Operating without an owner’s consent is an enhanced crime and charged as a third degree offense when it is alleged that the defendant operated the car in a reckless manner while in the process of joy riding.
Finally, you do not have to be actually driving the car to be charged under this section of the auto theft statute. If you are a passenger and the attendant facts and circumstances are such that it is probable you knew or should have known that the car was being operated without the owner’s consent, then any passenger can be charged as well.
The important thing to remember is that even if you have been charged with a more serious auto theft related offense, or if you are facing a charge under the joy riding statute, the state must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on each and every element of the crime, including proving what your intent was. This makes these cases very defensible and I would strongly advise contacting a criminal defense lawyer before making any court appearances or speaking with police.