This is similar to my question about breaking into a car in order to rescue a child in hot weather. The events are basically the same, but the intent of the person breaking in is different.

John sees a car in a parking lot and wants to steal it. He checks every door on the vehicle, and they are all locked. (He did this because breaking into a car decreases its value, not because he was trying to follow any laws.) He then breaks into the car with the intent of stealing it. He uses the minimum amount of force necessary to enter, but again, this is to preserve the car's value, not to comply with the law. After breaking in, however, he sees that the driver had left a child in the car. The weather is hot, and being left in the car would be dangerous for the child. John gets the child out, calls 911, and does not steal the car. He "Remains with the child or animal in a safe location, in reasonable proximity to the motor vehicle, until law enforcement, emergency services or the owner or operator of the motor vehicle arrives." Has he committed a crime?

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    Seems implausible that someone could check every door on the vehicle and not see that there's a child in there. That said, there was a recent story about a guy stealing a car that had a child in the back seat - returning to the scene of the crime to return the child and scold the mother about her bad parenting, then stealing the car anyhow. Not sure if he was ever caught... Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 14:26
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    @DarrelHoffman tinted windows.
    – terdon
    Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 16:41
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    "What happens if someone who intends to steal a car decides to rescue a child after breaking in?" The child doesn't die.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 20:48
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    Pretty much anything is better than kidnapping. "Marquise Hudson, 23, faces charges of child kidnapping, grand theft auto and burglary." wptv.com/news/region-c-palm-beach-county/… ... VIDEO: Car thief returns baby But ah, nice try, idiot. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 23:55
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    How many iterations are you going to take this? What happens if the child was actually his own missing child? What happens if the parent dies on the way to the car, making him the legal guardian before the police arrives? What happens if the car was already stolen? etc etc.
    – pipe
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 22:04

6 Answers 6



However, unless he confesses to his intent he’s not going to be caught.

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    Intent can be inferred by means other than confession. A mask, attempts to breaking into other cars first, possession of B&E tools, etc. can all server as indication of intent.
    – ikegami
    Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 17:19
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    @ikagami Those things might show a plan, but they wouldn't show intent at the moment of the break-in. The defendant could claim he changed his mind before touching the car as he had seen the child. I think to be guilty the defendant must have intent at the time of the action.
    – bdsl
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 14:45


Under common law, even the slightest movement of property with the intent (mens rea) to steal it completes the crime of larceny. There is no requirement that the thief "escape" or "get away" with the property and whether they did in fact get away is immaterial to guilt. The swaying of the car on its suspension during the break-in and/or the act of opening a door probably qualify as moving the car, but even if not, the offender would be guilty of the inchoate offense of attempted larceny, since they acted with specific intent to steal the car but were unsuccessful in moving it.

Dale M is correct on the offender confessing. This would be one of those cases where that the offender's intent would be a question of fact for the jury to evaluate based on the evidence presented. If the defendant has a good lawyer and argues their case well, they might well be able to convince the jury that there is a reasonable possibility that the defendant truly lacked the mens rea to steal and only ever intended to rescue the child. This would not affect his underlying guilt but would facilitate an acquittal through "reasonable doubt".

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    So, if the would-be thief noticed the child in the back seat before he touched the car, and made the decision to rescue the child at that point (and not steal the car), then, because there had been no slightest movement of property, he would be not guilty of larceny when he opened the car door and removed the child (even though he had walked up to the car with criminal intent). Did I read that right?
    – Flydog57
    Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 22:07
  • @Flydog57 also, he would not have touched the car at that point. So I would say yes, if he changed his mind before touching anything and the car was on public property or a place that the would-be thief was lawfully allowed to be, then he would not be guilty of any crime. An "attempt" requires that the offender "cross the Rubicon" so to speak. Mere preparatory actions don't count as an attempt. Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 23:04
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    One of those times (like virtually all the time) where it would be best to talk to a lawyer before saying anything to the police, I guess.
    – Flydog57
    Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 23:14
  • So do I get this right: In the USA, someone who wants to steal a car and tries if there are any unlocked doors, should do that with extreme care not to move the car one bit, because if they get caught at this moment, it is only attempted larceny, while someone being careless would have committed larceny, even if they then walked away when all doors are locked?
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 20:47
  • This is not how theft is defined in Oregon.
    – Davislor
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 2:14

A lot of criminals do this if they find evidence of a greater crime going on. Some might be fully willing to take the time for their crimes but not for the one they could have accidently put evidence linking back to them to the worse crime onto the case. Sure they intended to rob the owner of the house... but they didn't want to murder him. That was someone else.

This is why the scene in Home Alone where Kevin scares Marv with the "Angels with Dirty Souls" clip ultimately backfired. Harry, upon realizing Marv heard what he thought was a murder, rationalizes that since they've been in other houses on the block to rob them, and they've been casing Kevin's house in particular, they might be likely suspects for a murder they didn't commit and the police might show some leniency if they had a name or description of the murderer. Ultimately, Harry's decision to watch for who comes out of Kevin's house exposes Kevin's situation to the two robbers and they come dangerously close to actually murdering him (why the neighbor didn't explain this to the cops is troubling).

The fact is, in the U.S., prosecutors do have a hierarchy of crimes and burglars are less of a priority than murders. In many states, murder can get you the death penalty, so a bunch of robbers really want to avoid that. And in the United States, 90% of all criminal cases end in a plea deal of sorts, rather than court. And most career criminals realize this and will jump on the fact that they did not do the worst crime to get some kind of leancy (and occasionally off scotch free, if the prosecutor doesn't want to test the jury's sympathies with "Wrong For the Right Reasons"). It also helps that in the United States, Self-Defense is a good affirmative defense for any crimes and doesn't just include defense of self, but defense of others as well.

Edit: After all, there are numerous cases where a car jacker takes a car unaware of the kid being in it at all, and get hit with kidnapping charges for this. At least in this hypothetical situation, the bad guy did the right thing and didn't drive away with the kid and the car all together (a worse situation for everyone involved.).


I find it unlikely that a prosecutor would go after such an individual (it would be bad PR to be seen as persecuting a 'hero'), but one might attempt to prove intent if the individual, for example, was on camera checking out other cars in the parking lot, looking in their windows, and attempting to open their doors, as well.

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    If the hero situation was so clear-cut then there wouldn't be a need for the Good Samaritan law.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 17:58


The law does not read minds. To say "yes" to this question would impute the law with a supernatural ability to do that.

Mens rea talks about the content of ones mind, but it only practically applies to what can be shown by evidence.

Since there is no evidence that allows outsiders to distinguish "intended car theft" from "intended baby rescue", the crime does not exist.

Or if it ever existed, it was extinguished when the thief found the baby and decided to do the right thing under cover of the Good Samaritan laws.

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    There could be evidence that shows the intention. For example if the person had previously talked with a car fence who sais to him "I need a green Prius today, i'll pay top dollar" and the conversation was lawfully wiretapped. (assume the car broken into was a green Prius.) Possession of tools to break in to a car might also suggest intent. The law does not read minds, but courts often determine intent based on available evidence. Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 20:28
  • @David that is not in the question. Surely we are not imagining additional things that make our answers more correct? The presence of thief/locksmith tools might merely suggest the person was heaven-sent. Since we're imagining things. Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 20:30
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    You write: "Since there is no evidence that allows outsiders to distinguish..." I am pointing out that such evidence could exist. The question does not say that such evidence exists, nor that it does not exist. Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 20:33
  • Because my answer is examining the case where it does not exist. That is implied. Does it need to be spelled out, do you think? Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 20:35
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    You're basically arguing "it's only illegal if you get caught". While there is a practical correctness to that, it isn't strictly true. We know what is in the thiefs head in this situation because it's a thought experiment and we've decided what's in their mind. Analyzing thought experiments is a common practice in understanding the law. Whether certain characteristics would be challenging to prove in court is a much different manner. Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 6:09

He Unlawfully Entered a Motor Vehicle (a Class A Misdemeanor)

Suppose that someone else recorded him saying, “I’m going to go steal that car over there. Oh, yeah, this is my big payday. Wait! What’s that? Somebody left a baby in here? It’s got to be a hundred ten inside this car! You can’t even see ’em in these new backwards baby seats. Call 9-1-1, I’ll get it out! Where’s the coolest place we can get to?”

That definitely proves he met the elements of the crime of Unlawful Entry into a Motor Vechicle (ORS 164.272).

A person commits the crime of unlawful entry into a motor vehicle if the person enters a motor vehicle, or any part of a motor vehicle, with the intent to commit a crime.

He Did not Commit Theft

Other answers state the definition of theft in Oregon (ORS 164.015) incorrectly. In order to commit theft, he would need to have

Take[n], appropriate[d], obtain[ed] or withhold[ed] such property from an owner thereof;

or one of several other things that don’t come close to applying here, such as extortion. Common-law definitions of theft do not pertain to the state of Oregon.

He Did not Commit Robbery

He would only have violated ORS 164, Oregon’s robbery or carjacking statute, if he had used or threatened to use force on another person.

He Probably Did not Commit Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle

The Oregon Court of Appeals suggested, in Oregon v. Phillips, 315 Or App 178 (2021), based on the legislative history of ORS 164.135 (Unauthorized Use of a vehicle), that to commit this crime, “a person would need to ‘exercise control,’ or otherwise start or somehow ‘use’ the vehicle.” (This was not a holding in the case, however.)

He Might not be Prosecuted

In the original scenario, his intent when he entered the car would be much more difficult to prove. It also seems extremely unlikely that the owner of the car would want to press any charges against the man who saved their baby’s life. (Or want everybody to find out that they nearly killed their own child.)

Even if the county prosecutor suspects that John was up to no good, they might not want to bring a case where there was no harm done (other than, possibly, damage to the lock), the victim doesn’t want publicity, the case comes down to a subjective judgment of intent, and the defendant is so sympathetic.

  • Why is this answer is based on the assumption of a recording existing that isn't a part of the question? Remove the recording, and there's no evidence of a crime. As DaleM says, yes, he technically did, but there's no way to prosecute without a confession (or assuming they happened to talk about breaking into a car on a recording because... ya know.. because) - The rest makes sense, except the very end. In Oregon it is explicitly legal to break into a car to remove an unattended child in danger. They simply could not be prosecuted without the fictitious recording or a confession.
    – TCooper
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 20:44
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    @TCooper a crime is still a crime whether or not evidence exists.The questions asks "Has he committed a crime?" and the answer is yes.
    – mbrig
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 23:00
  • @mbrig That's not what I'm asking, I state that in my comment "As DaleM says, yes, he technically did" - what's the point of adding an entire section based on a recorded confession existing when it wasn't part of the question?
    – TCooper
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 12:55
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    @TCooper It was an example of evidence of intent. The question asked whether he committed a crime, given certain facts, including what his intent was at different points in time. Therefore, I wanted the hypothetical prosecutor and judge to be able to prove those facts about his intent. Also, in principle, he still committed the crime even if no one can prove it.
    – Davislor
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 15:09
  • @TCooper However, if you read further down, you will see that I also address your point in the final section.
    – Davislor
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 15:12

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