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Theft is the unlawful taking of another’s property, without their consent, with the intent to steal that property. The laws in California make a distinction between petty theft and grand theft. The law on petty theft is codified in California Penal Code Sections 484 and 488. Generally, shoplifting is considered petty theft.
What is California Petty Theft?
Petty theft is distinguished from grand theft in two ways (1) the value of the property stolen and (2) the punishment if convicted. Petty theft is the unlawful taking of another’s property, without their consent, with the intent to steal that property. To be petty theft, the value of the property must not exceed $950. If the value exceeds $950, or on the case of livestock and produce if the value exceeds $250, it is classified as grand theft. Petty theft is generally charged as a misdemeanor, but grand theft is a “wobbler” crime, which can be charged as a felony or misdemeanor depending on the specific circumstances and the defendant’s criminal history.
Some forms of theft are classified as grand theft, regardless of value. For example, the theft of a car or firearm, regardless of value, is always grand theft. If the property is taken from the person of another, it is robbery and grand theft. Stealing something from a locked vehicle is auto burglary and breaking in to a house with the intent to steal something is burglary.
What are the elements of California Petty Theft?
To convict a defendant of petty theft, the prosecution must prove that (1) the defendant committed theft and (2) that the property’s value is $950 or less.
Theft can be committed in several ways including:
- Permanently depriving another of their property,
- Temporarily depriving another of their property in a way in which the owner is denied of a major part of its value or enjoyment,
- Deceiving or defrauding another of their property or services, or
- The intent to do any of the above
A defendant has also been found guilty of committing theft when they take something with the intent to sell it back to the owner, claim a reward, or return it for a refund.
The value of the stolen item(s) is determined by the fair market value if it involves property. If it involves services, the value is determined by the contract price if there was a contract, or the reasonable rate for services in the area if there was no contract.
What are the punishments for California Petty Theft?
The main penalties for committing petty theft are:
- A fine of up to $1000
- Up to three years of informal probation, and/or
- Up to six months in county jail
However, the fines and penalties vary with the defendant’s criminal history and the value of the property or service stolen.
If it is a first-time theft-related charge and the value of the property is less than $50 (usually shoplifting), the charge may be reduced from a misdemeanor to an infraction with a fine up to $250. If it is a first-time theft-related charge but the value is over $50, the charge may be dismissed upon participation in an informal diversion program under which the defendant may have to pay back the value of the stolen property, attend anti-theft class, and/or complete a certain amount of community service.
If the defendant has a prior theft-related conviction for which there was a jail sentence, under California Penal Code Section 666 "Petty Theft with a Prior" the penalties are up to one year in county jail or, if charged as a felony, 16 months, two, or three years in state prison.
What are the defenses to California Petty Theft?
A person who is charged with petty theft or shoplifting will not necessarily be convicted of the offense. First, the prosecution must prove every element of the offense. The most important element in petty theft is the intent to steal. Without intent to steal, there can be no petty theft. There are four main defenses to petty theft charges:
Sometimes, people may take things by accident or forget to pay on the way out of a store. Since there was no intent to steal, there can be no theft.
- Claim of right
A claim of right defense argues that the defendant sincerely believed that he or she was entitled to the property. If a person believes, right or wrong, that they have a right to the property, there is no intent to steal and therefore no grand theft. However, there are two limitations. The claim of right defense cannot be asserted if the defendant concealed the taking either at the time of the occurrence of after the taking had been discovered. The defense will similarly not be allowed if the property taken was illegal (drugs, guns, etc.)
If the owner of the property consented to the taking, there is no theft. However, there is a stipulation. If there was consent, the defendant must have acted within the scope of that consent.
Some shoplifters use an innocent bystander to divert attention from themselves when committing theft. If a defendant was unaware that, for example, stolen merchandise was put in their purse, the defendant did not have the intent to steal and therefore cannot be convicted of theft.
Petty Theft Defense at the Johnson Criminal Law Group
The Orange County criminal defense attorney at the Johnson Criminal Law Group provides experienced, quality legal help to all those who have been charged with a crime. Everyone deserves the best defense possible, and our criminal defense attorneys are prepared to fight for you. Please contact our office today or send us a message online to speak to our Orange County criminal law attorney immediately.