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Believe it or not, a car can actually be stolen by someone the owner willingly gives the keys to. There have been numerous cases where someone borrows a car and refuses to return it — in effect, stealing it.
While this is by no means a common scenario, it has happened, and it's prudent to understand how to navigate this unfortunate situation should you ever find yourself swindled by someone who was supposed to be merely borrowing your car for a few days. So what does the law say about this? We've done the research, and we have the answer.
In general, borrowing can become theft when the borrower effectively assumes the rights of ownership or acts like the car is theirs. The problem for the lender, however, is that this can be difficult to prove and thus difficult to prosecute.
Do you still have some questions about this complicated topic? Don't worry — this guide aims to answer all of the questions you might have. We'll also give you some practical tips that will ensure that you're covered if this happens to you. Just keep reading for more information!
When Does Borrowing A Car Become Theft?
So, at what point does borrowing a car become theft?
According to a retired police officer, borrowing becomes theft when the one "borrowing" the car assumes the right of ownership or, in other words, treats the vehicle as their own in some form or fashion.
This is a tricky grey area, however, because there's not necessarily a legally determined timeframe that, when exceeded, borrowing suddenly turns into theft.
Making a case for car theft can be even more difficult because, in a situation like this, the lender originally gave the "borrower" explicit permission to use their vehicle. In other words, it's difficult to prove that someone stole a car when they were literally handed the keys and told they could drive the vehicle away.
In a case like this, the legal ramifications all depend on the circumstances. But generally speaking, in order for the "lender" to charge the "borrower" with theft, the lender must first repeatedly request that the car be returned. If the "borrower" fails to return the car after the lender makes numerous obvious attempts to get it back, theft has officially been committed.
Borrowing can also become theft if the borrower sells the vehicle while it's in their possession. In this situation, the borrower is treating the car as their own. By selling it, they are effectively assuming the right of ownership of the vehicle. When the borrower does this, theft has been committed.
It's important to note that the laws concerning this kind of situation might vary from city to city and state to state. Be sure to check your local laws to ascertain the line between borrowing and car theft.
A Hypothetical Scenario: John And David
To better understand when "borrowing" turns into theft, let's look at a hypothetical scenario:
John and David know each other but aren't necessarily the best of friends. Nevertheless, David texts John and asks if he can borrow John's car for three days so he can drive to work while his car is in the shop getting some repairs done. John thinks that David seems like a generally good guy, so he agrees to let him borrow his car. After all, he reasons, he has an extra car, so it shouldn't be a big deal.
Three days go by, and John reaches out to David to try to set up a time to get his car back. David replies and says that he wants to keep the car for a few more days because the shop is taking longer than expected to repair his car. John replies and says that he really wants the car back, but he doesn't get a response from David.
At this point, even if David has nefarious intentions, theft would be somewhat difficult to prove since John has only made one attempt to get his car back. So, legally speaking, David hasn't stolen the car.
After a few more days, John sends David a text message firmly requesting that his car be returned. David ignores the request and keeps the car even longer. During this time, David takes the car cross-country on a road trip vacation. At this point, John could go to the police and report his car stolen, and he would have a fairly strong case to prove it. There are four things that could help John build a case against David:
- The initial mutual agreement was that David would only have the car for three days.
- The initial mutual agreement was that David would use the car strictly to drive to and from work. By taking it on a cross-country road trip, he has effectively started treating it as his own.
- John has expressed multiple times that he wants his car back.
- John has a written log of all of the communication that supports his side of the story.
At this point, any law enforcement agency (and any reasonable person) would agree that a crime has in fact been committed.
How To Get Your Stolen Car Back
If you become the victim of this kind of bizarre car theft, the best course of action is to simply report the vehicle as stolen. Believe it or not, trying to explain the situation to the police might not be productive. Simply put, the authorities won't be interested in using their resources to intervene in a situation that sounds like a domestic dispute.
Cutting to the chase and claiming that your vehicle has been stolen is the easiest, most efficient way to get the ball rolling with the legal process. Be cooperative with the police and provide them with as much objective information about the incident as you can.
Reporting your vehicle as stolen to the authorities also serves to protect you in the event that the individual in possession of your vehicle uses it to commit a crime. If you reported the vehicle stolen, you're formally denying all responsibility for anything done with the vehicle while it was out of your possession.
Once you've reported your vehicle stolen to the police, go ahead and file a claim with your insurance company. As long as you have comprehensive coverage, this will ensure that the cost of the vehicle will be covered should it not be returned to you, and it will cover the cost to repair any damage that might be done to the vehicle while it was out of your possession.
And last but certainly not least, if you know where the stolen vehicle is located and if you have an extra key, try to go get it back.
If you're going to lend someone your car, you can't necessarily prevent them from stealing it, but there are a few precautionary steps you can take to ensure that you'll have a solid legal case should they fail to return your ride.
- Make sure that all communication with the borrower is done over text message or email. This will ensure that there's a written record of the agreement between you and the person borrowing your vehicle.
- Explicitly and clearly state the terms of the agreement in detail, including how long the borrower will have the vehicle, what it will be used for, and when/where it will be returned. Say something along the lines of "You can pick up the car today, use it to commute to/from work every day, and it'll be returned to my house by noon on Friday, right?" You can tailor this part to the individual you're speaking to, but it's important to clearly outline the terms of the agreement and receive a clear written acknowledgment of the terms.
And if you want to be even more legally prepared, you might want to:
- Create a legal contract outlining the terms of the agreement and have the borrower sign it. This particular measure might come off as somewhat abrasive, but it very well might be worth the added legal security.
While it's generally unlikely that someone borrowing your car will fail to return it, it's certainly a possibility. If you follow the precautionary steps we outlined, you'll be more than prepared to win the legal battle should you find yourself in that situation.
There are numerous accounts of this happening, and one of the biggest lessons to learn from them is to be careful who you lend your car to. If you exercise discretion in regard to who you give your keys to, you'll likely never have anything to worry about.
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