Penal Code 484 PC - California "Petty Theft" Laws

 


Penal Code 484 is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person unlawfully to take someone else's property and possess it as his own. This crime is known generally as petty theft. Officers tend to list this charge on a citation as "PC 484" or "484 PC."

This section states that:

“Every person who shall feloniously steal, take, carry, lead, or drive away the personal property of another, or who shall fraudulently appropriate property which has been entrusted to him or her, or who shall knowingly and designedly, by any false or fraudulent representation or pretense, defraud any other person of money, labor or real or personal property, or who causes or procures others to report falsely of his or her wealth or mercantile character and by thus imposing upon any person, obtains credit and thereby fraudulently gets or obtains possession of money, or property or obtains the labor or service of another, is guilty of theft.”

While “petty theft,” per PC 488, is the unlawful taking of property worth $950 or less; “grand theft,” per PC 487, is the unlawful taking of property worth more than $950.

There are several forms of theft that may give rise to petty theft charges in California. These include:

Examples 

  • Natalie “borrows” her neighbor's $300 serving tray and purposefully does not return it.
  • Juanita changes the price tag on a $100 sweater so that she pays less for it.
  • Maurice takes a $300 smartphone from a shipment of phones that he is delivering for his boss.

Defenses

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

  • acted with the property owner's consent,
  • merely borrowed the property in question, and/or
  • assrts a claim of right over the property.

Penalties

Petty theft is charged as a misdemeanor in California (as opposed to a 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).

Also note that, if a person is convicted of an offense under PC 484, this conviction:

A person convicted of this offense can also seek to have the conviction expunged once he successfully completes:

  • probation (if imposed), or
  • any jail time (if imposed).

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

petty theft by a girl shoplifting
Penal Code 484 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to unlawfully take someone else’s property and possess it as his own. This crime is known generally as theft.

1. How does California law define petty theft?

Penal Code 484 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to unlawfully take someone else's property and possess it as his own. This crime is known generally as theft.1

While “petty theft,” per PC 488, is the unlawful taking of property worth $950 or less; “grand theft,” per PC 487, is the unlawful taking of property worth more than $950.

Note that a prosecutor must prove four things in order to successfully convict a defendant under PC 484. 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 defendant moved the property, even a small distance, and kept it for any period of time, however brief.2

Questions often arise under this statute on:

  • the owner of property vs. the possessor of property,
  • what is the intent to deprive,
  • what is the moving of property,
  • does an accused have to use the stolen property for a conviction, and
  • how is property valued.

1.1. Owner of property vs. possessor of property

The victim of theft does not have to be the owner of the property for the crime to occur. It is enough if the victim is just in possession of the property.3

For purposes of 484 PC, “ownership” and “possession” may be regarded as the same terms.4

1.2. Intent to deprive

In showing that a defendant intended to deprive an owner permanently of his property, it is enough to show that:

  • the accused intended to deprive an owner of the main value of his property, and
  • this intent was for a given time.5

Also on intent, note that an accused may try and defend against a theft accusation by showing that he intended to return the property he took. However, he must return the property within a reasonable time of taking it. A judge or jury will decide what is a “reasonable time” by examining the facts of the case.6

1.3. Moving of property

For a completed theft crime, the defendant must have moved the property or carried it away.This is sometimes called "asportation." 

This movement must include three things. These are:

  1. the property in question is severed from the possession of the owner or possessor,
  2. the goods are in the complete possession of the defendant, and
  3. the property is moved, however slightly.8

1.4. Multiple items stolen

When a defendant steals many items in a case, a question becomes whether this stealing is one crime or if each theft constitutes a separate offense.

In this situation, the thefts will count as one single theft charge if:

  • the multiple items are stolen from a single victim, and
  • the takings are part of one intent, plan, or impulse.9

If there is but one charge, the value of the property taken will be the combined value of all the property that a defendant stole in each theft.10

1.5. Use or benefit of property taken

For a theft conviction, it does not matter whether the defendant intended to use the property taken or benefit from it. He is guilty of theft if there is an intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property.11

1.6. Value of property

As stated above, petty theft is the taking of property worth $950 or less. And, grand theft is the taking of property worth more than $950.

In determining the correct value of property, courts use something called “fair market value."12

Fair market value is defined as the highest price the property would reasonably have sold for in the open market at the time, and in the place, where it was stolen.13

security guard reporting theft
There are several forms of theft that may give rise to petty theft charges in California

2. Are there different forms of petty theft?

There are several forms of theft that may give rise to petty theft charges in California. Some include:

  • theft by larceny,
  • theft by trick,
  • theft by embezzlement, and
  • theft by fraud or false pretenses.

2.1. Theft by larceny

Most petty theft cases involve the form of theft known as “larceny.”

This crime typically occurs when someone physically takes and carries off with another person's property.

This property is most often personal in nature and may include:

  • jewelry,
  • electronic equipment,
  • clothing,
  • appliances,
  • furniture,
  • bicycles, and
  • sporting gear and equipment.

The elements of theft by larceny are the same as outlined above for the crime of theft. In addition, the value of the property taken must be $950 or less for larceny to be charged as petty theft.

2.2. Theft by trick

A prosecutor must successfully prove five things in order to convict a defendant of theft by trick. These are:

  1. the defendant obtained property that he knew was owned by someone else,
  2. the property owner let the defendant take possession of the property because the accused had used some kind of fraud or deceit,
  3. when the defendant obtained the property, he intended to either deprive the owner of it permanently or for a period of time that the owner would miss a major part of the property,
  4. the defendant kept the property for any length of time, and
  5. the property owner did not intend to transfer ownership of the property to the accused.14

A “fraud” is the intentional use of deceit, or a trick, to deprive another of his property or a legal right.

2.3. Theft by embezzlement

Theft by embezzlement (Penal Code 503) is another way in which prosecutors may charge a person with petty theft.

If they do, they must prove four things to convict that person of a crime. These are:

  1. an owner of property entrusted that property to the defendant,
  2. the property owner did so because he trusted the accused,
  3. the accused fraudulently took or used that property for his own benefit, and
  4. when the defendant took or used the property, he intended to deprive the owner of the use of it (even temporarily).15

A person takes or uses someone else's property “fraudulently” when he takes undue advantage of them or caused them a loss by breaching a duty or confidence.16

It is not a defense to petty theft by embezzlement charges for the accused to show that he intended to return the property.17

2.4. Theft by fraud or false pretenses

Under Penal Code 532, a person commits theft by fraud or false pretense when:

  1. he knowingly and intentionally deceives a property owner by “making a false pretense” (or, by telling him something that is not true),
  2. he persuades the owner to let him take possession of the property, and
  3. the owner lets him take possession and ownership of the property because the owner was relying on the false pretense.18

Note that California law says that a person makes a false pretense if he intends to deceive someone else and he does one of the following things:

  • gives information that he knows is false,
  • recklessly says something is true without any basis for believing that it is true,
  • fails to give information when he has an obligation to do so, or
  • makes a promise that he doesn't intend to fulfill.

An accused is only guilty of theft by fraud if the owner of the property relied on the accused's false pretense. This just means that the false pretense has to be an important reason why the property owner gave up his property. It does not have to be the only reason.19

attorney reviewing documents
A good defense can often get a charge reduced or even dismissed.

3. Are there legal defenses to PC 484 charges?

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 484 accusations are:

  1. acted with owner's consent,
  2. borrowed the property, and
  3. claim of right.

3.1. 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.

3.2. Borrowed the property

Also recall that a defendant is only guilty under PC 484 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. But keep in mind that the accused must try and return the property, after “borrowing” it, within a reasonable time after taking it.

3.3. Claim of right

Claim of right is a legitimate defense for any charge of petty theft. This defense asserts that the accused actually believed that he had a right to the property he took - even if that belief is mistaken or unreasonable.20

4. What are the penalties for petty theft?

Petty theft 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 $1,000.21

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

5. Are there immigration consequences?

A petty theft conviction may have negative immigration consequences.

Note that under United States immigration law, certain kinds of criminal convictions in California can lead to a non-citizen being deported. Some convictions can also make an immigrant "inadmissible.”

The major categories of “deportable crimes” or “inadmissible crimes" are:

  • crimes of moral turpitude,
  • aggravated felonies,
  • controlled substances (drug) offenses,
  • firearms offenses, and
  • domestic violence crimes.22

Note that one California court has stated that when a defendant commits petty theft by using an intent to defraud, the offense is considered a crime of moral turpitude.23

In addition, there has been a case in which an immigrant was deported for violating PC 484 and that deportation was held as valid.24

Both of these cases, however, are over sixty years old. This means that the ultimate determination as to whether a PC 484 violation will lead to negative immigration consequences most likely will depend on the facts of the case.

Judge expunging from record
Under Penal Code 1203.4, an expungement releases an individual from virtually "all penalties and disabilities" arising out of the conviction.

6. Can a person get an expungement?

A person convicted under 484 PC can try to get the offense expunged.

Under Penal Code 1203.4, an expungement releases an individual from virtually "all penalties and disabilities" arising out of the conviction.25

One particular benefit is that an expunged conviction does not need to be disclosed to potential employers.

As a basic rule, PC 1203.4 authorizes an expungement for a misdemeanor or felony offense provided the applicant:

  1. successfully completed probation (either felony probation or misdemeanor probation), and
  2. is not currently:
  • charged with a criminal offense,
  • on probation for a criminal offense, or
  • serving a sentence for a criminal offense.26

This means that once a defendant has successfully completed probation for violating PC 484, or serving a jail term for the same, he may begin trying to get the crime expunged.

7. Does a petty theft conviction affect a person's gun rights?

A conviction under Penal Code 484 does not have an effect on the convicted party's gun rights.

Note that some felony and misdemeanor convictions will result in the defendant losing his rights to own a gun in California.

Also note that some misdemeanors carry a 10-year firearm ban.

But a conviction involving petty theft will not result in a person losing ownership of his gun or being banned from the gun for a period of time.

8. Are there crimes related to petty theft?

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

  1. grand theft – PC 487,
  2. burglary – PC 459, and
  3. mail theft – PC 530.5e.

8.1. 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 $950.00.27

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.28

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.29

8.2. 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.30

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).31

California first-degree burglary is always a felony. The potential consequences include a state prison sentence of up to four years.32

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.33

8.3. Mail theft – PC 530.5e

Penal Code 530.5e PC is the California statute that makes mail theft a crime.

The official legal definition of U.S. mail theft is set forth in two laws:

A person commits the crime of stealing U.S. mail in California if he does any of the following:

  • steals or takes any mail from a mailbox or receptacle or other authorized depository for mail, or from a post office or letter carrier,
  • uses fraud or deception to obtain or attempt to obtain any mail from one of these sources,
  • removes the contents of any stolen mail,
  • destroys or hides any stolen mail, or
  • buys, receives, or unlawfully possesses any stolen mail, knowing that it is stolen.35

Mail” includes letters, postcards, packages, and mail bags.36

Mail theft is a misdemeanor in California.37

The crime is punishable by:

  • up to one year in county jail, and/or
  • a fine of up to $1,000.38

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

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

If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime under Penal Code 484 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 484 PC.

  2. CALCRIM No. 1800 - Theft by Larceny. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition). See also People v. Williams (1946) 73 Cal.App.2d 154 and People v. Edwards (1925) 72 Cal. App. 102.

  3. People v. Edwards (1925) 72 Cal. App. 102.

  4. See same.

  5. People v. Avery (2002) 27 Cal.4th 49.

  6. See same.

  7. People v. Shannon (1998) 66 Cal.App.4th 649.

  8. See same.

  9. People v. Bailey (1961) 55 Cal.2d 514.

  10. See same.

  11. People v. Kunkin (1973) 9Cal.3d 245.

  12. CALCRIM 1801. See also People v. Romanowski (2017) 2 Cal.5th 903.

  13. See same.

  14. CALCRIM 1805.

  15. CALCRIM 1806.

  16. See same.

  17. See same.

  18. CALCRIM 1804.

  19. See same.

  20. People v. Romo (1990) 220 Cal.App.3d 514.

  21. California Penal Code 490 PC.

  22. See INA 237 (a) (2) (A).

  23. In re Hallinan (1954) 43 Cal. 2d 243.

  24. Alesi v. Cornell (1957), 250 F.2d 877.

  25. California Penal Code 1203.4 PC.

  26. See same.

  27. California Penal Code 487 PC.

  28. California Penal Code 489 PC.

  29. See same.

  30. California Penal Code 459 PC.

  31. California Penal Code 460 PC.

  32. California Penal Code 461 PC.

  33. See same.

  34. California Penal Code 530.5 PC and 18 USC 1708.

  35. See same.

  36. See same.

  37. California Penal Code 530.5 PC.

  38. See same.

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