Petty Theft in the State of California

Penal Codes PC 484 and PC 488 in the state of California defines petty theft as the unlawful taking of property that is worth less than $950. The most common instances of petty theft are when you physically take an item or items belonging to someone else. This might be shoplifting, taking an unguarded item off a table, breaking into a car and taking items or cash, or even mugging someone. These offenses can all be considered petty theft but the consequences for each of them are highly situational. In this article we will discuss in detail the different forms of petty theft, the consequences you may face if charged with petty theft, and what you can do to defend yourself from petty theft charges, but consulting with an attorney, like Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer of Los Angeles, California, will help you figure out how these principles can be applied specifically to your case.

Defining Petty Theft Under PC 484 and PC488

There are four main types of petty theft under the law:

  1. Theft by larceny is knowingly and unlawfully taking an item that does not belong to you.
  2. Theft by fraud/false pretense is knowingly and unlawfully lying to convince someone to give you ownership of an item.
  3. Theft by trick involves knowingly and unlawfully lying to take possession (but not ownership) of an item, then taking ownership of the item.
  4. Theft by embezzlement is knowingly and unlawfully taking something that was entrusted to you.

Petty theft is always considered a misdemeanor in the state of California and is typically punished by a fine of a maximum of $1000 or a maximum of six months in a county facility, or a combination of the two.

To be charged and convicted with petty theft, you must be demonstrated to be guilty of all of the elements of the crime to a degree that is beyond reasonable doubt. However, the elements differ based on the form of petty theft that you have supposedly committed. We will break down and define each form of petty theft so that you may better understand what you may be facing if you are looking at a petty theft charge.

Petty Theft –Larceny

Larceny is the most typical form of petty theft. To be convicted with a larceny charge the prosecutors must prove:

  1. You took property belonging to another person.
  2. You did not have the owner’spermission to take said property.
  3. You intentionally stole the property with the intent of keeping it or depriving the owner of its use.

Let’s break down the elements of the crime. First, taking property belonging to another person may seem straightforward, but there are many cases in which both taking and ownership are unclear. The definition of taking property involves physically moving the item even if only a short distance. However, this means that moving an item a few inches is technically “taking” if going by the definition of only physically moving the item. This is why intent, the third element of the crime, is crucially important when examining cases dealing with larceny. If a person moves an item by only a few inches and the item is still in open view, then it would be difficult to argue for a larceny charge. However, if a person moves the item only a few inches, but moves it into a position of hiding with the intention of coming back for it later, then their actions may be considered larceny.

Another seemingly straightforward element is the issue of ownership and permission. The second element states that you took an item belonging to someone else and that you did not have permission to take the item. It may be possible that ownership of an item is unclear or disputed. It may be possible that you thought you had obtained permission but did not or that there was some kind of miscommunication between you and the item’s owner. In either case, breaking down the details of what happened with an attorney is a crucial step towards receiving a beneficial ruling on your case.

More often than not, examples of larceny are fairly cut and dry because in most cases, taking an item without permission is usually clear. However, one additional condition for larceny is that the duration for how long an item is kept must be “significant” to count as larceny. However, the definition of significant is interpreted by the jury depending on each case. In most cases, a significant duration is typically a period of several months or more.

Petty Theft -False Pretense/Fraud

The elements of the crime surrounding false pretense or fraud are as follows:

  1. You intentionally told a person something that you knew to be false.
  2. Your intent in giving false information is to obtainan item that does not belong to you.
  3. The owner used that information as a basis to give you ownership of the item.

Although far less common than larceny, theft by fraud/false pretense can be far more difficult offense to understand because of the definition of a false pretense under the law and the burden of proof that is required by the prosecution. A false pretense requires a few specific conditions. To make a false pretense, you need to intend to deceive another person by either giving blatantly false information, by making a claim that you have no reason to believe is true or by making a promise that you have no intention of keeping. Another important consideration for petty theft by fraud/false pretense is that the person who owns the item must be relying on the false pretense, either in whole or as a significant influencer.

Theft by fraud/false pretense requires special evidence from the prosecution in order for the jury to convict a defendant. The prosecution is required to produce at least two witnesses, some form of documentation of the pretense, or a combination of one witness and additional evidence. This is so that you cannot take advantage of the law by claiming fraud or false pretense if you want to go back on a legitimate transaction.

This example illuminates the various forms of fraud/false pretense. Carl dropped his phone and cracked the screen. Carl takes the phone to Adam who repairs phones. If Adam tells Carl that the phone cannot be fixed or that the phone has no value because it is broken, despite knowing that he could easily repair the phone, Adam has made a false pretense because he purposefully gave Carl misinformation. Similarly, if Carl asks Adam if he should take the phone in to be repaired and Adam claims that a different repairshop would charge Carl more to fix the phone than to buy a new phone so that Carl would give the phone to Adam, Adam would be guilty of making a false pretense in that he made a claim that he has no reason to believe is true. He may not know what the other shops would charge, but he has no reason to believe that other shops would charge such a large amount. Lastly, if Adam tells Carl that he will sell the phone for Carl and give him the value of the phone in cash but is instead intending to keep the cash for himself, Adam would be making a promise that he has no intention of keeping.

Petty Theft –Trick

Petty theft by trick seems very similar to petty theft by fraud/false pretense. In fact, the legal definitions are essentially the same with one major difference -in theft by trick, ownership of the property was never intended to be relinquished by the original owner. The elements are the crime are:

  1. You intentionally told a person something that you knew to be false.
  2. Your intent in giving false information is to obtain temporary ownership an item that does not belong to you.
  3. You keep the item for yourself.

A good way to think about the differences between theft by trick and theft by fraud/false pretense is that fraud or false pretense will typically be in cases of some kind of transaction, whether it be a professional or business transaction, or a personal transaction. Theft by trick will typically involve a more obvious intent to steal something.

Petty Theft –Embezzlement

The definition and elements of embezzlement are as follows:

  1. You were given control of funds, property, or item, by the owner.
  2. You used or took the assets in question without permission.
  3. You had intended to use the assets for personal gain.

Although embezzlement typically is associated with the idea of “white collar crime”, accounting, or management of funds, embezzlement can also be charged for misuse of physical property.

Many cases dealing with embezzlement are also fairly cut and dry because many cases deal with taking money not belonging to you. The main hang up with embezzlement is that many people may not realize that you can be charged with embezzlement even if you fully intended to pay back all of the money. A good rule of thumb would be that most cases that involve taking money from an employer without their knowledge and full disclosure could end up as embezzlement. Even something as small as writing off personal expenses as business expenses could theoretically be charged as embezzlement.

Another common misconception with embezzlement deals with embezzlement of company property. If you are entrusted with company property and you use it for personal use, you may be guilty of embezzlement. Often individuals driving company cars or rentals may not realize that using the vehicle for personal reasons may be considered embezzlement depending on what they are allowed. Additionally, company technology such as phones, laptops, and tablets, could also be considered to be embezzlement if under the right circumstances.

Petty Theft vs. Shoplifting

It is important to note that while shoplifting will often result in a petty theft charge, for various reasons, shoplifting has its own penal code under PC 459.5. This is because typically charges of shoplifting are indeed petty theft -you stole an item or items that did not belong to you and the cumulative value of those items were less than $950.

However, shoplifting gets its own definition under PC 459.5 because the law specifically refers to the intent of entering a store. Entering a commercial property during operating hours while intending to commit larceny or fraud is the legal definition of shoplifting. Note that this does not actually say that you needed to be successful in stealing an item and you can be charged with shoplifting simply for the intent. This is an important distinction because although shoplifting has its own legal code, most successful shoplifters, as in those who actually succeed in leaving the commercial property with items, and then who are caught, will typically be charged with petty theft instead of shoplifting. You can only be charged either with petty theft or with shoplifting but not both so it is important to understand the distinction.

Possible Penalties for Petty Theft

Penal Code 484 is considered to be a misdemeanor under the law in the state of California. This means that the sentencing for conviction is typically light. However, if you are convicted of petty theft, you may face up to a six-month sentence in county jail facility or a fine of a maximum of $1000 or a combination of both.

If this is your first offense of petty theft but your record is otherwise clean, you may be qualified for a diversion program if the total value of the stolen property was less than $50. Diversion constitutes a fine of a maximum of $250 and will stay off of your permanent record. This type of diversion is an informal diversion process (different than formal diversion programs which we will discuss in a moment). What this means is that you can make a plea deal with the prosecuting attorney to reduce the petty theft charges so that it stays off of your criminal record.

If you are convicted with petty theft worth more than $50, you may still be eligible for a diversion program. However, a record of the diversion will be kept and you will need to participate in any combination of the following; you may be asked to repay the value of the stolen items, participate in a set number of hours of community service, or attend a class educating against theft.

To contrast with diversion programs, if you are a repeat theft offender, otherwise known as Petty Theft with a Prior, you may instead face a Penal Code 666 charge. PC 666 makes petty theft a wobbler, which means that you could either be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony based on how the prosecution chooses to pursue the case. Prior charges include but are not limited to:

  • Previous accounts of petty theft;
  • Previous accounts of grand theft including grand theft auto and grand theft firearm;
  • Convictions of burglary, carjacking or robbery;
  • Convictions of a serious felony including various sex-related crimes, attempted murder, murder, and manslaughter.

A misdemeanor account of petty theft increases the maximum sentence from six months to one year in a county facility and a felony account of petty theft can increase the penalty to up to three years in state prison.

Typical Legal Defenses for Petty Theft

There are several typical legal defenses that can be utilized in petty theft cases. The most common defense is that you did not intend to steal. Intent can be difficult to prove the jury in a court of law. Remember that you are innocent until proven guilty and the jury needs to be convinced of your guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. If you forgot to pay for an item, unintentionally removed something that wasn't yours, mistook ownership of an item (grabbed the wrong item), or any number of accidental causes, you cannot be guilty of a theft crime. The only instance of theft where this defense cannot apply is for embezzlement charges.

Another common legal defense involves disputes of ownership over an item. For many cases involving fraud or false pretense, having a record of sale can make or break a case. If you purchased an item from someone and now this person is claiming fraud or false pretense, having a record that you bought the item from them will contribute to your defense by proving that ownership was transferred. Additionally, if you are “stealing” an item that rightfully belonged to you, you cannot be guilty of stealing something that is rightfully yours and it will help if you are able to prove your ownership of the item by having a receipt or serial number associated with the item.

Finding a Petty Theft Lawyer Near Me

A Petty theft charge is a crime that affords many different legal options to you and it’s important to consult with a lawyer in order to form a strategy in how you will approach the case and form a strong defense. A strong legal defense will eventually require the experience of an attorney because it involves more than just stating what happened. It requires an expert understanding of the legal code and of what evidence will support or possibly even harm your case. Our Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney is highly qualified and has the right experience to be able to help you with what you need. Contact us at 310-502-1314 for a consultation today.