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The criminal taking of a motor vehicle from its driver by force, violence, or intimidation.

The u.s. justice department categorizes the crime of carjacking as a "completed or attempted Robbery of a motor vehicle by a stranger to a victim." Carjacking incidents emerged in increasing numbers in the 1980s and 1990s, after their initial appearances in Detroit. According to a report filed with the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 1999, an average of 49,000 carjackings occurred in the United States each year between 1992 and 1996. During this time, about half of all attempted carjackings were successful, though the most carjackings (84 percent) did not result in injuries to the victims.

Carjackers are often thought by the public to target older persons, women, and tourists—groups of conspicuous vulnerability. However, statistics from 1992 to 1996 show that individuals between the ages of 25 and 49 were more likely to be the victims of such a crime (3.6 out of every 10,000 persons) than individuals ages 50 or older (0.9 out of every 10,000 persons). Moreover, males during this time span were more likely to be victims (3.1 out of every 10,000 persons) than females (1.9 out of every 10,000 persons).

The makes and models of the cars targeted for carjacking vary from city to city, and it is not only the expensive, top-of-the-line cars that are taken but also older and less pricey automobiles. This may be because carjackings are more crimes of opportunity than of premeditation. Carjackers simply wait for an unaware driver, an open window, or an unlocked door. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report in 1999, persons with an average annual income of between $35,000 and $49,999 were more likely to be victims (3.2 out of every 10,000) than those who made $50,000 or more per year (2.4 out of every 10,000).

Carjacking was formally introduced to Congress during its spring 1992 session by Representative Charles E. Schumer (D-NY). Over the next several months, a new law involving the crime was discussed and developed into the Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992 (18 U.S.C.A. § 2119). The focus was not entirely on carjacking, but rather on car theft, which had become the number one property crime in the United States, with automobiles constituting more than 50 percent of the property U.S. citizens lost to theft.In the fall of 1992, Pamela Basu and her 22-month-old daughter were carjacked in Maryland. Basu was forced from her car by two men and, in a struggle to keep her daughter from being hurt, became caught in the seat belt outside the car. She was dragged almost two miles before she was freed from the seat belt; her daughter, still in her car seat, was thrown from the vehicle a short time later. Basu died of massive internal injuries; her daughter was physically unharmed. The publicity surrounding this crime helped fuel the movement that led to the passage of a provision in the Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992 that made carjacking a federal offense.

President George Herbert Walker Bush signed the act into law on October 25, 1992. The statute's provision regarding carjacking was as follows:

Whoever, possessing a firearm, as defined in section 921 of this title, takes a motor vehicle that has been transported, shipped or received in interstate or foreign commerce from the person or presence of another by force and violence or by intimidation, or attempts to do so, shall—1) be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both. 2) If serious bodily injury … results, be fined under this title or be imprisoned not more than 25 years, or both, and 3) if death results, be fined under this title or imprisoned for any number of years up to life, or both.

Within a few months of its passage, the federal carjacking statute was challenged under the Double Jeopardy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. According to the Fifth Amendment, no person shall "be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb," meaning that no one can be tried twice for the same crime. After the carjacking statute was passed, people who used a firearm during the commission of a carjacking were not only subject to punishment under that statute but also faced mandatory punishment under 18 U.S.C.A. § 924(c), which outlaws the use or carrying of a firearm in relation to a violent crime. The issue came to a head in United States v. Singleton, 16 F.3d 1419 (5th Cir. 1994), when the presiding judge ruled that both the firearm portion of the carjacking statute and the gun statute proscribed the same conduct, and Congress had not shown that it would impose cumulative punishment under these two statutes. Therefore, the gun count in the carjacking statute violated the Double Jeopardy Clause.

Within several months of Singleton, amendments to the carjacking portion of the Anti-Car Theft Statute were debated in the House of Representatives and Senate. The result was a provision in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-322, 108 Stat. 2119, which was signed by President bill clinton. The provision made two significant amendments to 18 U.S.C.A. § 2119. The first was that a death sentence can be handed down in cases in which a carjacking victim is killed. The second was that "possessing a firearm, as defined under section 921 of this title" was deleted and replaced with "with the intent to cause death or serious bodily harm." This removed the double jeopardy problem identified in Singleton.

Although carjacking has been made a federal crime, several states also have legislation on the subject. One is Florida, which has a big tourist industry. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, an increasing number of tourists, most of them foreign, were victims of carjackings in Florida. Because tourists in well-marked rental cars were common carjacking victims, Florida passed legislation in 1993 (F.S.A. § 320.0601) that outlawed company logos and license plates that made rental and leased cars obvious. Florida's legislators felt that tourists warranted this extra protection for three main reasons. First, tourists are, more often than not, unfamiliar with the area and are more likely to become lost or end up in a high-crime area. Second, tourists often carry more cash than natives, which makes them prime robbery targets. And finally, fewer tourists are likely to return and testify in court about a crime. By granting tourists the right to drive unmarked rental cars, Florida made them less vulnerable to the crime of carjacking.

Further readings

Bodette, David C. 2001. "The Sixth Circuit Interprets the 'Person or Presence' Requirement of the Federal Carjacking Statute." The University of Memphis Law Review 32 (fall): 197–209.

Bureau of Justice Statistics. 1999. Carjackings in the United States, 1992–96. Available online <> (accessed October 13, 2003).

Kretzmar, Allan Jon. 1998. "I Would Rather Face a Carjacker in Court Than Have a Carjacker Come to My Funeral! The debate over Carjacking, Legislation, and Anti-Theft-Anti-Carjacking Devices." University of West Los Angeles Law Review 29 (annual): 291–325.

Michenfelder, Mary C. 1995. "The Federal Carjacking Statute: To Be or Not to Be? An Analysis of the Propriety of 18 U.S.C. §2119." Saint Louis University Law Journal 39 (spring).

Norborg, Chris. 2000. "Conditional Intent to Kill is Enough for Federal Carjacking Conviction." Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 90 (spring): 985.

Rand, Michael R. 1994. Carjacking: National Crime Victimization Survey. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

Wing, F. Georgann. 1994. "Putting the Brakes on Carjacking or Accelerating It? The Anti Car Theft Act of 1992." University of Richmond Law Review 28 (April).


Automobiles; Double Jeopardy.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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