What Is Petty Theft?
Petty theft is defined in California Penal Code sections 484 & 488 as willfully and unlawfully taking the property of another worth $950 or less with intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property taken. This does not include taking property directly out of the owner's control, such as from his body, from his clothing, or from a container that the he/she is holding or carrying. In that case, it would be a charge of robbery or of grand theft. Petty theft is usually charged as a misdemeanor, and a conviction can carry the following penalties: informal probation, up to 6 months in the county jail, and/or a fine of up to $1,000. Under PC 490.1, a first-time offender with no previous theft crime convictions who steals $50 or less may be able to get a charge reduction to a mere infraction. Many times, a plea deal can be worked out with prosecutors for an infraction charge, which will avoid the creation of an official criminal record.
What Raises a Theft Charge to Grand Theft?
For a theft to be counted as "grand theft" (PC 487), the general requirement is that over $950 was stolen or that the property was taken directly off of the plaintiff's person. Note, however, that certain types of property are counted as grand theft even if less than $950 is involved. These property items are as follows:
- $250 or more of fish, shellfish, aqua-culture, nuts, or fruit if taken directly from a fishery or research facility
Auto theft is almost always charged as a felony, while firearm theft is a mandatory felony. Many grand theft cases, however, are "wobblers" that may be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies. A misdemeanor grand theft gets you one year in the county jail, while a felony grand theft carries 16 months to 3 years in state prison.
What Must the Prosecution Prove to Convict of Petty Theft?
The elements to be proved by the prosecutor are as follows: the defendant took the property in question, had intention to deprive the owner of its possession/use, and did not take more than $950 worth of money and/or goods.
There are four varieties of petty theft that are frequently charged in Los Angeles, each of which is briefly examined below:
- Petty Theft by False Pretense (PC 484): To prove this charge, the prosecutor must show that the defendant used deception to convince the property owner to transfer his/her property into the defendant's possession/ownership. This must have been committed knowingly and willingly, and the owner must have relied on the fraudulent representation or false pretense as the basis for relinquishing control of the property.
- Petty Theft by Larceny (PC 484): Larceny is more commonly known by the name of "shoplifting," and it is the most common form of petty theft. The following elements must be established: the defendant took the property in question, took it without the owner's consent, and intended to deprive the owner of it permanently or for sufficient time as to deprive the owner of a significant portion of its value/enjoyment. The defendant must also have moved the property and kept it in his/her possession. Only a short distance and a brief time period are required, however.
- Petty Theft by Trick (PC 484): This crime is similar to theft by pretense in that the perpetrator convinces the property owner to put the property into his control by means of fraud and deception. However, it differs in that the owner never intended to allow transfer of ownership to occur. The prosecutor must show that the defendant received the property from the owner, knew it was not his own, had intention to deprive the owner of it, and kept it for at least a small stretch of time.
- Petty Theft by Embezzlement (PC 484 & 503): Embezzlement requires that the property owner entrusts his/her property into the hands of another because of the high level of trust felt toward that person. The perpetrator then violates that trust by fraudulently converting or using the owner's property for his own benefit. Intent to deprive the owner of his property must have existed, but this intent can have been either temporary or permanent. That is, "borrowing" or intention to return the property later are not valid legal defenses against embezzlement.
Defenses Against the Charge of Petty Theft
Five of the most common legal defenses used to defeat allegations of petty theft are as follows:
- The defendant never had any intention of stealing the property.
- The owner gave his/her consent to the taking of the property.
- The property belonged to the defendant, not to the plaintiff.
- The defendant honestly, though incorrectly, believed that the property he took was rightfully his. The intention was to claim or reclaim what he could reasonably have been expected to mistake as his own.
- The defendant never even took the property. The allegations are completely false. Perhaps, the defendant is actually the victim of a framing job or of malicious accusations.
Petty Theft With a Prior
Petty Theft With a Prior (PC 666), which applies whenever the defendant has three or more prior convictions, with time served behind bars, for any of the following crimes: petty theft, grand theft, grand theft firearm, grand theft auto, burglary, robbery, car-jacking, or a PC 496 felony.
In cases wherein multiple acts of petty or grand theft combine to a total value that exceeds the "statutory minimums" established in penal code section 12022.6(a), sentencing enhancements apply. When this amount falls between $50,000 and $2.5 million, the defendant could face between one and four extra years in the state prison system.
Expert Petty Theft Defense Attorneys
At the Law Offices of Jeff Voll, we have extensive experience in successfully handling petty theft cases in the Los Angeles area. We know what elements of the prosecution's case to challenge, how to find evidence and witnesses in your favor, and how to fight for and obtain the best possible outcome for your case. Feel free to contact us today at 323-467-6400 with all of your pertinent questions and for a free legal consultation.