Yes, it is a crime to look through the glove box of a car, even if you didn't actually steal the automobile. Suppose you're walking down the street and you lift the door handle of a nearby vehicle. The car is unlocked, so you decide to look inside to see what kind of stuff the owner has. While doing this, a cop stops you and places you under arrest under suspicion of tampering with an automobile.
California Law Prohibiting Going through Someone Else’s Car
The statute specifically concerned with going through the contents of an automobile is California Vehicle Code 10852 VC. However, it's not just going through the glove box or looking around the floors that is unlawful.
The following acts are considered illegal, whether you’re acting alone or with someone else:
- Willfully injuring or tampering with the vehicle or its contents,
- Breaking any part of the car, or
- Removing any part of the car
For you to be prosecuted under this law, the State must prove that you didn't have the owner's consent to engage in whatever action you did.
For example, say your friend Barry needed to get his cell phone out of his car because he was waiting to receive an urgent phone call. However, at the moment, Barry's hands were full because he was helping a neighbor bring in groceries. He asked you to go to his car to get the phone. In this case, your actions would not be considered illegal because you had Barry's consent.
However, suppose Barry wasn't your friend, and you saw his car on the street. You liked the license plate frame because it had an interesting quote on it. You decided you want the frame and took it without Barry's permission. That is considered tampering with an automobile.
How Is This Offense Different from Auto Burglary?
California has another law on the books that prohibits going through someone's car without their consent. This law is known as auto burglary, and it specifically states that it is illegal to enter a vehicle, when the doors are locked. It's distinct from the tampering with an automobile law in that the conduct is considered unlawful when the intention was to commit petty theft, grand theft, or any other felony offense.
What that means is if you broke a window or somehow jimmied the lock on a car to steal the contents of the glove box, you're committing an offense. Whether or not you actually took the items is not a defense to this statute. As long as the intent was there, your conduct was illegal.
Breaking into a car with the intent to steal something or commit a felony is considered burglary in the second degree, and it is charged as a misdemeanor or felony. Depending on the level of offense, a conviction could carry imprisonment for up to 1 year (for a misdemeanor) or 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years for a felony).