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1. Definition and Elements of Unlawful Taking of an Emergency Vehicle
The unauthorized use or operation of any vehicle will likely expose you to criminal penalties under California law. However, if the vehicle in question is a fire department vehicle, a police vehicle, or an ambulance, penalties may be much more severe. California Vehicle Code Section 10851(b) requires authorities to impose jail time on anyone convicted of unlawfully taking or driving an emergency vehicle.
To successfully convict a defendant accused of taking an emergency vehicle, the prosecutor must prove the following elements of the crime:
a. The defendant (1) drove or took an emergency or modified vehicle, as defined by the statute, or (2) was a party or an accessory to or an accomplice in the driving or unauthorized taking or stealing of an emergency or modified vehicle.
b. The defendant knew, or reasonably should have known, that (1) the emergency vehicle was on an emergency call at the time of the alleged crime or (2) that the vehicle had been modified for the use of a disabled person.
2. Related Offenses
This crime is closely related to the Unauthorized Taking or Driving of a Vehicle under California Vehicle Code Section 10851(A)and Grand Theft Auto under California Penal Code Section 487(d)(1).
Example A: The defendant walks past an ambulance that is parked with its lights on in a residential neighborhood. The defendant observes EMTs personnel inside the home who appear to be providing emergency medical treatment to the home’s occupant. The defendant decides to take the ambulance and drive it around the neighborhood. Because the defendant took the ambulance when he knew or reasonably should have known the ambulance was involved in an emergency call, the defendant would be guilty of a violation of California Vehicle Code Section 10851(B) for unlawfully taking or operating an emergency vehicle.
Example B: The defendant observes a police car parked in the driveway of the home he knows to be owned by a police officer. The defendant takes the car, without permission, to the grocery store. Because the police car was not involved in an emergency call, the defendant would not be guilty of a violation of California Vehicle Code Section 10851(B) for unlawfully taking or operating an emergency vehicle. However, the defendant could still be convicted of alternative crimes such as a violation of California Vehicle Code Section 10851 for unlawfully taking or operating a vehicle.
Example C: Three men observe police cars with their flashing patrol lights on parked outside a bank. The men observe police officers communicating with bank robbers over a megaphone inside the bank and surrounding the bank’s perimeter. The men take one of the police cars on a joyride. The drive and both passengers could be prosecuted for a violation of California Vehicle Code Section 10851(B) for unlawfully taking or operating an emergency vehicle
If a defendant did not know or should not have reasonably known that the emergency vehicle was on an emergency call when it was taken, or if the car was not actually involved in an emergency call when it was taken, the defendant cannot be convicted of the crime of unlawfully taking or operating an emergency vehicle.
Additionally, modified vehicles without a placard or license plate distinguishing it for the use of a disabled person cannot form the basis of a conviction for unlawfully taking or operating an emergency vehicle.
Unlawfully taking or operating an emergency vehicle can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the underlying facts of the situation. If a defendant is convicted for felony taking of an emergency vehicle, the maximum penalty that the defendant would face is four years. If, alternatively, the defendant is convicted of the misdemeanor version of the offense, the maximum sentence that may be imposed on the defendant is one year in jail. The statute imposes a mandatory minimum of ninety days in county jail for any defendant convicted of unlawfully taking or operating an emergency vehicle.
6. Criminal Defense
It is imperative that you consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney if you are charged with or believed you may be charged with unlawfully taking or operating an emergency vehicle. Engaging a skilled defense attorney early in the process will help you to protect your rights and ensure you maintain all possible defense strategies.