Theft is a crime that encompasses many acts. Shoplifting is theft, but so is carjacking, stealing someone’s identity, and many other offenses. In general terms, theft is an act of taking property, money, or other thing of value, that does not belong to you and without the owner’s permission. While this encompasses an outright taking, it can also include taking by means of fraud.
The physical act of stealing property or money are theft by larceny. Other thefts are committed by acts of fraud. For example, embezzlement, theft by false pretenses, and identity theft are all acts of theft and may be either a petty theft or a grand theft depending on the value of the property taken. Here we will focus on theft by larceny.
Theft is considered a petty theft when the value of that taken is less than $950 (Penal Code section 484); otherwise it is grand theft (Penal Code section 487). Grand theft may be charged as a felony, which carries serious consequences. Even shoplifting can be charged as grand theft if the value of the property taken is over $950. If you have been charged with theft, whether petty or grand, it is wise to consult with an experienced theft defense attorney as soon as possible.
The elements of theft are:
- The taking of property owned by another;
- Taking that property without consent;
- With the intention to permanently deprive the owner of the property, or to deprive the owner of the property for such a time that the owner would lose a major portion of the value of the property, and
- In taking the property, it is moved (even if just a small distance) and kept for any period of time (however brief).
(Calcrim No. 1800)
The first two elements are self-explanatory, the last two are perhaps harder to understand. So, let’s break that down with an example: Joe places a $20 bill on a table at a restaurant. He turns his head for a moment when Marjorie, who is walking by, sees the $20 bill and quickly grabs it. Joe catches Marjorie’s act out of the corner of his eye. She manages to take only a step when Joe grabs her and takes back the $20 bill. If Marjorie intended to permanently deprive Joe of the $20—and the logical conclusion is that she did—she would have committed a petty theft even though she was only one step and a few seconds away from her act before she was thwarted.
A charge of theft may be only one of the charges a defendant faces when he or she commits an act of taking someone else’s property without permission. A bank robber may be charged with armed robbery and grand theft, among other offenses. Someone who steals a computer from a residence may be charged with theft and burglary and other offenses. And so on.Defenses to a Theft Charge
The prosecution must show that you did not have a rightful ownership to the property taken. If your theft defense attorney can prove that you did have ownership rights, the theft charge can be defeated. Let’s take an example: Mark loaned his lawnmower to a neighbor, Bill, last summer. Bill never returned the mower and Mark, polite as he is, did not ask Bill to return it since he had a spare mower anyway. Bill, who has a bit of a memory problem, forgot he borrowed the mower. This summer, Mark’s spare mower broke down. He saw his mower sitting in Bill’s yard, so he took it. Bill saw Mark “stealing” his mower and called the police. Mark had rightful ownership of the mower; he has not committed theft.
The prosecution must prove that you took the property without consent. In the Mark and Bill example, Bill had Mark’s consent to borrow the mower and even though he seemed to claim it as his own, he did not commit an act of theft.
The prosecution’s burden can get tricky on the question of intent. The prosecution must prove that you intended to deprive the owner of the property either forever, or for a period of time that would effectively deprive the owner of the benefit of the property. Thus, taking property with the intent to only hold it temporarily may not satisfy this element. Back to Mark and Bill but in a different scenario. Bill sees Mark’s lawnmower sitting in Mark’s driveway. He knows Mark is at work, so he takes the lawnmower to mow his lawn with the intent to return it to Mark’s driveway in the late afternoon before Mark gets home from work. On this day however, Mark returns home early from work and sees that his lawnmower is gone. He calls the police and the lawnmower is found at Bill’s house. Bill is arrested for petty theft. But Bill didn’t intend to permanently deprive Mark of the lawnmower or even take it long enough to interfere with Mark’s use of the mower, so his act does not satisfy the intent element.
Another defense to intent is that the property was taken by mistake. If you can make the case that you believed the property was yours, even if you were wrong about that, there was no intent.Penalties
Petty theft is a misdemeanor with a potential punishment of up to six months in county jail and/or a fine of up to $1000. In lieu of a jail sentence, the court may sentence the offender to probation that may include terms such as completion of community service.
Grand theft is a wobbler, meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. The prosecutor makes this decision. In cases where the theft involves something of high value or the many thousands of dollars, you can be almost sure the prosecutor will file the felony charge. Some thefts are always charged as felonies no matter what the value of the property; these include the theft of a firearm, theft of an automobile, and property taken directly from a person carrying the property taken (e.g., purse snatching or pickpocketing).
A misdemeanor grand theft conviction carries a maximum sentence of up to one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1000. A felony conviction can be punished by up to three years imprisonment and a maximum $10,000 fine. A grand theft sentence can be enhanced if certain conditions are met. For example, if the loss exceeds certain thresholds, additional time in prison can be ordered.
On both petty and grand theft convictions, the court may order restitution to victim to not only cover the victim’s losses but to “make the victim whole.”Orange County Theft Defense Attorney William Weinberg can Help
Mr. Weinberg has defended hundreds of theft charges in his 25+ years of practice. He offers a free consultation to discuss the particulars of your case. Contact him by calling his Irvine office at (949) 474-8008 or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.