If you've been arrested for theft in California, whether you face a felony charge or a misdemeanor charge largely depends on the value of the property you are accused of stealing.
Generally, if you are charged with theft of property valued at $950 or less, it will constitute “petty theft” and be prosecuted as a California misdemeanor. (California Penal Code Section 484). For theft of property valued at more than $950, it constitutes “grand theft” and be can be prosecuted as a California felony. (California Penal Code Section 487).
There are actually five misdemeanor California theft offenses, depending on how the allegedly stolen property was acquired:
- Theft by Larceny. The most common form of petty theft, theft by larceny is committed when someone simply takes the property of another. Specifically, you can be charged with theft by larceny if:
- You took possession of property owned by someone else;
- You took the property without the owner's permission;
- When you took the property, you intended either to deprive the owner of it permanently or for a period of time long enough that the owner would miss a major portion of the value or enjoyment of property; and
- You moved the property even a small distance and kept it for even a brief period of time.
(Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions 1800 – Theft by Larceny (Pen. Code, § 484))
- Theft by False Pretense. If you lie to someone or make a statement in reckless disregard for the truth with the intent to deprive them of their property, you could be charged with theft by false pretense. (California Penal Code Section 532). To be convicted of theft by false pretense, the prosecution must prove:
- You knowingly and intentionally deceived a property owner by “making a false pretense”…basically, telling him/her something that wasn't true;
- You did so intending to persuade them to let you take possession of their property; and,
- That person let you take possession and ownership of their property because they were relying on your false pretense.
- Theft by Trick. Similar to theft by false pretense, theft by trick involves using fraud or deceit to deprive someone else of their property. The distinction is that while theft by false pretense involves deceiving someone into transferring both possession and ownership of their property, theft by trick involves only possession. That is, the person deceived through theft by trick is expecting to get their property back.
- Theft by Embezzlement. This form of petty theft involves a relationship of trust between the parties involved, such as a company accountant or clerk stealing from their employer. If you take advantage of the trust that someone put in you and fraudulently take or use their property for your own benefit – even if you intend to ultimately give it back – you can be charged with theft by embezzlement.
- Shoplifting. California Penal Code Section 459.5 makes shoplifting a separate and distinct offense even though it is very much a form of theft by larceny. Shoplifting is defined as:
- Entering a commercial establishment (usually a store),
- While that establishment is open during regular business hours,
- With the intent to commit larceny of objects with a value of $950 or less
Note that you can be charged with shoplifting simply for having the intent to steal even if you don't succeed in actually making it out the door.
If you've been charged with a California misdemeanor theft offense, an experienced California theft crimes lawyer can work with you to fight and defeat the charges against you. Give us a call today to discuss your case and explore your options.