Sufficiently Pleading an Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle Charge

For a misdemeanor complaint to be facially sufficient, the accusatory instrument must provide facts that would establish each element of the crimes being charged. In People v. Bajas (App. Term 2d Dept. 8/31/2018), the Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction,  holding that the allegations in the accusatory instrument sufficiently alleged facts that established the “control or use of [a] vehicle” element of Penal Law § 165.05(1). The case drew a dissent from Judge Weston.

The defendant was arrested after an officer observed the defendant, at 4:24 AM, pull the handle of a 2006 Ford Suburban, enter the vehicle, and rummage through the glove compartment and center console of the Ford Suburban. The defendant was arrested and charged with Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in the 3°, Attempted Petit Larceny, and Resisting Arrest. During his second court appearance, the defendant pleaded guilty to Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in the 3° with the understanding that if he successfully completed a drug treatment program, the case would be dismissed. If he was unsuccessful in treatment, the defendant would be sentenced to one year of incarceration to run concurrently with a sentence on a prior, unrelated, felony charge. The defendant did not complete the drug treatment program and was sentenced to imprisonment.

On appeal, defendant contends that his conviction should be reversed because the factual part of the accusatory instrument, which merely alleged that he had entered a vehicle and rummaged through the glove compartment and the center console, did not satisfy the reasonable cause requirement for a misdemeanor complaint charging Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in the Third degree. A person is guilty of Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in the 3° when:

[k]nowing that he does not have the consent of the owner, he takes, operates, exercises control over, rides in or otherwise uses a vehicle. A person who engages in any such conduct without the consent of the owner is presumed to know that he does not have such consent.

The broad language of the statute has been interpreted to apply to a person who “enters an automobile without permission and takes actions that interfere with or are detrimental to the owner’s possession or use of the vehicle.” Entry into a vehicle alone is not enough; there must be some degree of control or use. The court relied on this reasoning for holding that the defendant’s rummaging through the car and center console satisfied the statute.

Judge Weston, on the other hand, would have reversed the judgment, vacated the guilty plea, and dismissed the accusatory instrument. In her dissent, Judge Weston pointed to the majority’s reliance on the Court of Appeals decision in People v. Franov. Franov dealt with an entry into a vehicle where the defendant vandalized and then removed certain automotive parts from the dashboard. Judge Weston believed that merely rummaging through a vehicle does not constitute vandalism, and since there was no allegation in the accusatory instrument of any further action on the part of defendant, in addition to the entry, the statute was not satisfied. Instead, Judge Weston would have the Court follow the same rationale as a similar previously decided case, People v. Gavrilov. This case held that the defendant’s entry into a vehicle and stealing a wallet from inside was not enough to constitute “use or control” of the vehicle for the purposes of the statute. Here, there was not even property taken (MK/LC.

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