Penal Code 488 PC – Definition of Petty Theft in California

Penal Code 488 PC is the California statute that makes it crime for a person to steal someone's property or services worth $950 or less.

Note that Penal Code 484 defines theft generally. Penal Code 487 sets forth the law on grand theft, or the theft of property worth more than $950. And, Penal Code 488 states:

“Theft in other cases is petty theft.”

Examples of illegal acts under this code section include:

  • Thomas takes his neighbor's $200 lawn mower and doesn't return it.
  • Maurice steals his ex-girlfriend's gold necklace that is worth $300.
  • Marilyn takes her friend's new sweater, who bought it for $150, and keeps it as her own.

Defenses

Luckily, there are several legal defenses that a person can raise if accused of a crime under PC 488. These include showing that the defendant:

  • acted with the property owner's consent,
  • borrowed the property in question, and/or
  • was arrested after an unlawful search and seizure.

Penalties

A violation of this statute is charged as a misdemeanor (as opposed to a California felony or an infraction).

The crime is punishable by:

  • imprisonment in county jail for up to six months, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $1,000.

Please note that in lieu of jail time, a judge may award a defendant with misdemeanor (or summary probation).

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

petty theft shoplifting
PC 488 is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to steal someone’s property or services worth $950 or less.

1. What is prohibited under California Penal Code 488 PC?

Penal Code 488 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to steal someone's property or services worth $950 or less.1

A prosecutor must prove four things to successfully convict a defendant under this statute. These are:

  1. the defendant took possession of property owned by someone else,
  2. the defendant took the property without the owner's consent,
  3. when the defendant took the property, he intended to deprive the owner of it permanently, and
  4. the property taken was worth $950 or less.2

Note that when there are several charges of petty theft, each is treated as a separate offense – provided that they did not occur within one continuous act. This means the value of the different properties cannot be added together to exceed $950, and therefore, make the crime grand theft.3

Also note that it is not a defense for a defendant accused of petty theft to say that he intended to restore the property that was wrongfully taken.4

2. Are there legal defenses to accusations of violating PC 488?

If a person is accused of a crime under this statute, then he can challenge the accusation by raising a legal defense. A good defense can often get a charge reduced or even dismissed.

Three common defenses to PC 488 accusations are:

  1. acted with owner's consent,
  2. borrowed property, and/or
  3. unlawful search and seizure.

2.1. Acted with owner's consent

Recall that an accused is only guilty under this code section if he took someone's property without that person's consent. This means it is always a solid legal defense for a defendant to show that he acted with the owner's consent. Perhaps, for example, the accused took some property because he was getting it for the owner of the property.

2.2. Borrowed property

Also recall that a defendant is only guilty under this code section if he acted with the intent to deprive an owner of his property permanently. It is a defense, therefore, for an accused to show that he was merely borrowing a person's property and was going to return it after he temporarily used it.

2.3. Unlawful search and seizure

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declares that we have the right to be free from unreasonable “searches and seizures” by law enforcement. If authorities obtain evidence from an unreasonable, or unlawful search and seizure, then that evidence can get excluded from a criminal case. This means that any charges in the case could get reduced or even dismissed.

petty theft can result in a fine
A violation of PC 488 can result in a fine up to $1000.

3. What are the penalties for violating Penal Code 488?

A violation of this statute is charged as a misdemeanor in California.

The crime is punishable by:

  • imprisonment in county jail for up to six months, and/or
  • a maximum fine of $1,000.5

Please note that in lieu of jail time, a judge may award a defendant with misdemeanor (or summary probation).

4. Are there crimes related to petty theft?

There are three crimes related to petty theft. These are:

  1. grand theft – PC 487,
  2. robbery – PC 211, and
  3. burglary – PC 459.

4.1. Grand theft – PC 487

Penal Code 487 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of "grand theft."

This section says a person is guilty of grand theft if he:

  1. unlawfully takes someone else's property, and
  2. that property is valued at more than $950.00.6

In most cases, a violation of PC 487 is a wobbler offense. This means that the prosecutor may charge it as either a misdemeanor or a felony.7

If charged as a misdemeanor, the crime is punishable by up to one year in county jail.

If charged as a felony, the offense is punishable by a jail sentence of either:

  • 16 months,
  • two years, or
  • three years.8

4.2. Robbery – PC 211

Penal Code 211 PC is the California statute that makes robbery a crime.

A defendant is guilty of violating PC 211 if:

  1. he took personal property from someone else's person or immediate presence,
  2. he did so against the victim's will, and
  3. he did so through the use of force or fear.9

Robbery is always charged as a felony under California law. The specific penalties will depend on whether a defendant is convicted of first-degree robbery or second-degree robbery.

First-degree robbery leads to a California state prison sentence of between three and nine years.10

The sentence for second-degree robbery is two, three, or five years in state prison.11

4.3. Burglary – PC 459

Penal Code 459 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of "burglary."

Under this section, a burglary occurs when a person enters any residential or commercial building or room with the intent to commit a felony or a theft once inside.12

One commits the crime of burglary merely by entering the structure with the requisite criminal intent, even if the intended felony or theft is never actually completed.

California burglary law is divided into first-degree burglary and second-degree burglary. First-degree burglary is burglary of a residence. Second-degree burglary is the burglary of any other type of structure (including stores and businesses).13

California first-degree burglary is always a felony. The potential consequences include a state prison sentence of up to four years.14

Second-degree burglary is what is known as a wobbler in California law. This means that it may be charged as either:

  • a felony, with a potential county jail sentence of up to three years, or
  • a misdemeanor, with a potential county jail sentence of up to one year.15

Were you accused of petty theft in California? Call us for help…

california petty theft criminal defense attorneys
Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime under Penal Code 488 PC, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LawFirm.

For similar accusations in Nevada, please see our article on: “Nevada "Petit Larceny" Laws (NRS 205.240).”

For similar accusations in Colorado, please see our article on: “Colorado Petty Theft (Larceny) - 18-4-401 (2)(b) CRS.”


Legal References:

  1. California Penal Code 488 PC. This code section states: “Theft in other cases is petty theft.” See also 1 CALCRIM 1801.

  2. Penal Code 484 PC. See also People v. James (1957) 155 Cal. App. 2d 604.

  3. People v. Miles (1940) 37 Cal. App. 2d 373.

  4. People v. Holmes (1970) 5 Cal. App. 3d 21.

  5. California Penal Code 19 PC.

  6. California Penal Code 487 PC.

  7. California Penal Code 489 PC.

  8. See same.

  9. California Penal Code 211 PC.

  10. California Penal Code 213 PC.

  11. See same.

  12. California Penal Code 459 PC.

  13. California Penal Code 460 PC.

  14. California Penal Code 461 PC.

  15. See same.

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