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In the USA, many rental car agencies have clauses prohibiting driving on unpaved roads: for example, see those questions on Travel.SE: (1), (2), (3). From one example agreement including some causes many renters are likely to be in violation of:

Prohibited vehicle uses and activities include:

(...)

Using a vehicle (...)

other than on paved roads (whether "off-roading", driving on unimproved roads or parking areas, or otherwise)

(...)

to transport any flammable (...) substances

The first point implies that any car (even a jeep) cannot be taken onto unpaved driveway or parking lot. The second point implies one can't have fuel in the fuel tank, and even if that's likely not what they mean, it means one can't bring a lighter or camping fuel. Many are likely to violate both items (for example, many tourists in rental cars park at the gravel parking lot for the popular Antelope Canyon tourist attraction, knowingly or unknowingly breaching their rental contract).

A comment to a now-deleted post stated that If you use a rental car in an unauthorized manner, your right to use it terminates, and you are driving in a stolen vehicle.

Is that right? If someone has signed a rental contract stating prohibiting the use of the vehicle other than on paved roads, and then violates this by driving the car onto a gravel driveway or parking area, does that mean the renter is guilty of car theft?

For the purposes of this question, you may assume California, USA, but other answers are also welcome.

  • Fuel in a tank isn't being "transported" for the goal of unloading it somewhere, unless you siphon it, and I suppose that might also be a violation of the contract – user662852 Nov 22 '17 at 2:23
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    @user662852 Right, I'm pretty sure they don't mean that. But "any flammable substances" is still very broad, can't bring home matches from the grocery store? Anyway, the question here is not exactly what they mean by flammable substances, I put it there as an example which many people may be likely to violate (depending on what it means exactly). – gerrit Nov 22 '17 at 2:26
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No

If you breach the contract that may allow the rental company to terminate it (among other things), however, termination would need to be communicated to the customer. Only if they kept it after that, with the intention of permanently depriving the company of it, are they stealing it.

  • It might be helpful to list the elements for an offence of "theft" to be made out. Of course this is jurisdiction dependent, but in England and Wales they are: "A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it;" That is: 1. Dishonestly; 2; appropriates property belonging to another; 3. permanently deprives. ... and the case would fail on the third leg. (Of course, the rental company could sue for breach of contract.) – Martin Bonner supports Monica Nov 22 '17 at 13:35
  • Sometimes a statute on rental property theft will presume intent to permanently deprive under certain circumstances (e.g. it isn't returned without three days), but ultimately an intent to permanently deprive must be established. Also an intent to not return the property on time, using it without authorization for a period of time is sometimes defined as theft (i.e. the company was permanently deprived of the ability to rent the car during December of 2017 and that right had value). But, merely violating the agreement without depriving the company of the property is not theft. – ohwilleke Nov 22 '17 at 15:31
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    It might be helpful, since the issue was raised w.r.t. California, to look at the language of the vehicle theft statute. The key is taking without consent, and includes temporary taking. Breach of contract does not mean there was no contract. – user6726 Nov 22 '17 at 17:11

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