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Is Shoplifting the Same as Petty Theft Under California Law?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Dec 18, 2018 | 0 Comments

california shoplifting and petty theft
Shoplifting and petty theft are charged as misdemeanors under California law

While the crimes of shoplifting and petty theft are similar, they are technically different offenses under California criminal law.

The main difference between the two is that while shoplifting focuses on the act of entering a store with the intent to steal, petty theft focuses on the actual taking of property.

Per California Penal Code 459.5, a person commits the crime of shoplifting if he:

  1. enters a commercial establishment,
  2. while that establishment is open during normal business hours,
  3. with the intent to steal property that is worth $950 or less.

Per California Penal Code 484(a), petty theft is the unlawful taking of property that is valued at nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) or less. Most petty theft cases involve “larceny.” A person commits this crime if he:

  1. takes possession of someone else's property,
  2. without that person's permission, and
  3. takes the property with the intent to deprive the owner of it for a period of time.

Both shoplifting and petty theft are charged as misdemeanors under California law. The offenses are punishable by:

  • imprisonment in the county jail for not more than six months; and/or,
  • a maximum fine of $1,000.

What is the crime of shoplifting in California?

California Penal Code 459.5 PC is the California statute on shoplifting. The code section says a person commits a crime if he:

  1. enters a commercial establishment,
  2. while that establishment is open during normal business hours,
  3. with the intent to steal property that is worth $950 or less.

Examples of “commercial establishments” include:

  • hotels/motels,
  • restaurants,
  • retail stores,
  • theatres, and
  • fitness clubs or gyms.

Shoplifting became a separate offense in November 2014 as part of Proposition 47. Prior to this time, the act that is now shoplifting would have typically been charged under California's burglary law.

What is the crime of petty theft in California?

California Penal Code 484(a) PC is the California statute on petty theft. Most petty theft cases involve a form of theft known as “larceny.”

A person commits the crime of larceny if he:

  1. takes possession of someone else's property,
  2. without that person's permission, and
  3. takes the property with the intent 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 the property.

Please note that the California laws on larceny also state that an accused has to move the property to commit the offense. This “movement” can be for just a small distance.

An accused must also have kept the property in question. It is a crime if the accused only kept the property for a very brief period of time.

What are the penalties for shoplifting and petty theft?

The penalties are the same for both shoplifting and petty theft.

The crimes are charged as California misdemeanors. They are punishable by:

  • imprisonment in the county jail for not more than six months; and/or,
  • a maximum fine of $1,000.

Please note that in lieu of jail time a judge may order a defendant to misdemeanor probation. This is also called “summary” or “informal” probation.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.

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