Federal Chop Shop Violations and Defenses – 18 U.S.C. § 2322
A “chop shop” under 18 U.S.C. § 2322 is a business that is involved in receiving, concealing, destruction or dismantling of unlawfully obtained motor vehicles in order to sell their parts.
The related statute 18 U.S.C. § 2321 makes it a crime to buy, receive, possess or obtain control of any stolen motor vehicles or their parts with intent to sell or dispose them.
There are several related federal statues prosecutors can use to charge this crime, but the United States Congress enacted laws specifically designed to target this crime, with penalties up to 30 years in certain cases.
Since motor vehicle parts normally lose their identity as stolen property once removed, and because chop shop operators typically dispose of the stolen parts nearby, evidence of interstate distribution of stolen parts is often hard to obtain.
In other words, many chop shop operators are prosecuted under a variety of other federal statutes that are related to 18 U.S.C. § 2322, such as:
- 18 U.S.C. § 2315 receipt or possession of stolen property,
- 18 U.S.C. § 511 altering or removing vehicle identification numbers,
- 18 U.S.C. § 2313 sale or receipt of stolen vehicles.
Title 18 U.S. Code § 2322 makes it a federal crime to knowingly own, operate, maintain, or control a “chop shop”— a business that strips stolen vehicles to sell the parts.
While California has its laws for punishing chop shop operators, in many cases, these chop shop activities fall under federal jurisdiction.
If a chop shop operation is small and doesn't cross state lines, it will normally be prosecuted California Vehicle Code 10801 VC, which is discussed below.
For more detailed information about the crime chop shops, our federal criminal defense lawyers are reviewing the law below.
What Is a Chop Shop?
Under 18 U.S. Code § 2322, a chop shop is defined as:
- “Any building, facility, structure or premise where people receive, conceal, destroy, disassemble, dismantle, reassemble, or store any motor vehicle or part unlawfully obtained to alter, counterfeit, deface, destroy, disguise, or remove the identity, including the vehicle identification number to distribute, sell, or dispose of vehicle or vehicle parts in interstate or foreign commerce.”
In other words, a chop shop deals in buying and reselling stolen vehicles and parts, usually involving any/all of the following:
- Storing the stolen vehicles for future sales,
- Stripping the vehicles for their parts,
- Obscuring or changing identifying features (including the vehicle's unique VIN number),
- Reassembling vehicles and selling them,
- Selling off the parts.
In many cases, a chop shop may operate under a legitimate business front—for example, a mechanic, auto body, or auto parts shop that stocks legitimate parts while also dealing in stolen parts on the side or behind the scenes.
In some cases, the business owner may even be unaware that employees or colleagues are using the facility for chop shop activities.
How the Federal Government Prosecutes Chop Shop Activities
Chop shop crimes are generally covered by two laws in the Title 18 Code: § 2321 and § 2322.
The first deals with the actual activities of receiving and selling stolen vehicles and parts; the second deals with owning and managing the facility that harbors this activity.
18 U.S. Code § 2321
This federal law makes it illegal to knowingly buy, receive, traffic, possess or control a vehicle or vehicle part that has been stolen or for which the identification number has been tampered with, having the intention of selling or disposing of it. Violating this law alone carries a sentence of up to 10 years.
18 U.S. Code § 2322
This part of the code deals with ownership and control of any “building, lot, facility, or other structure or premise” where illegal possession, modification, and selling of stolen vehicles and parts occurs.
If you own, maintain, or control such a facility, you could face up to 15 years in prison or 30 years if it is your second offense.
Whether a person is charged under either or both of these laws depends on their involvement in the illegal activity.
If you are only accused of stealing vehicles and parts for chop shop purposes, you may only be charged under § 2321.
However, if you own and operate the chop shop and are directly involved with its activities, you could be charged under both § 2321 and § 2322, which could increase your prison time if convicted.
Elements of the crime
A federal prosecutor has to prove several factors, beyond a reasonable doubt, in order to obtain a conviction:
- Defendant acquired or possessed a vehicle or part where the VIN or other identification was unlawfully altered or removed,
- Defendant knew of the unlawful alteration or removal,
- Defendant had intent to sell or dispose of vehicle or parts.
Federal Law Versus California Law Regarding Chop Shops
As stated above, the State of California has its own laws and penalties addressing chop shops under Vehicle Code 10801 VC.
If a chop shop's activities remain contained within state lines, the defendant may be charged under state law rather than federal law.
However, when chop shop activities cross state lines (i.e., “interstate or foreign commerce” according to 18 U.S. Code § 2322), the chop shop is typically charged under federal law.
If you are charged with the federal crime of owning or operating a chop shop, you could face harsh penalties under the federal sentencing guidelines.
You could receive steep fines and up to 15 years in prison if convicted, up to 30 years for a second offense, in addition to penalties for other related federal charges.
Defending Against Federal Chop Shop Charges
For federal prosecutors to obtain a conviction for chop shop-related crimes, they must prove that you own/control a chop shop facility and that you knowingly and willingly participated with the intent to dispose of or sell the stolen goods.
They must also prove you had direct or constructive knowledge of the illegal activity occurring on the property, which is where prosecutors sometimes have difficulty proving.
Thus, common defense strategies to exonerate those accused of running chop shops may include demonstrating any/all of the following:
- Defendant was unaware that the facility was being used as a chop shop, and therefore not a willing participant,
- Defendant was unaware that vehicles/parts from their suppliers were illegally obtained or modified,
- Defendant's ownership of the facility is in dispute,
- Defendant's ownership share did not give them control over the intended use of the facility.
If you are accused of operating a chop shop in California, you need to get our criminal defense lawyers involved early in order to increase your chances at a favorable outcome.
Eisner Gorin LLP has extensive experience in federal criminal cases. We have two office locations in Los Angeles County, including Century City and Van Nuys. Contact us at 877-781-1570 for a consultation.