San Diego Criminal Attorney represents all types of criminal related offenses, earning themselves a reputation of successfully defending clients not only in San Diego but also throughout Southern California. This reputation is bolstered by their many wins in various matters of the law. One of their areas of crime that they have successfully defended against is that of petty theft.

What is Petty Theft?

Legally, the state of California defines “petty theft” in California Penal Code Section 484 (a), the instance when someone steals property that is not under their ownership. However, for it to be counted as petty theft, the property in question must be worth less than or equal to $950. Petty theft is charged as a misdemeanor and the severity in both the action and in the consequences are less than the actions and consequences of grand theft, which could count as both a misdemeanor or a felony. The Penal Code also lists the various ways that people can commit theft, distinguishing between theft by larceny, trick, embezzlement, and fraud. Once the prosecution has distinguished the kind of petty theft involved, then they can down their sentence, charge, and verdict accordingly. Through all four of these ways of committing petty theft, one can be penalized which, like any legal misdemeanor, can result in legal consequences such as imprisonment or heavy fines. Just as the law distinguishes between these instances of theft, it is important to recognize the different forms that petty theft can take.

  1. By Larceny

Petty theft in the form of larceny has the highest rate of being committed out of all others in California. The law defines larceny as the physical extraction of tangible property from one person by another person. In order to be convicted on petty theft by larceny, there must be evidence that the defendant obtained possession of property without consent from its owner. One can also commit larceny when they take property from others while having the intent of depriving them of the stolen property for any amount of time. They can be charged with larceny if they even move the property or keep it for a small amount of time. This includes any attempts at shoplifting, trying to steal something with the intent of returning it after some time, or any kind of act that results in the owner feeling the absence associated with the theft. In this case, intent does matter and these actions of petty theft are punishable by law.

Example: Jamie gives Stacey one of his mother’s $500 necklaces on their anniversary. When they break up a month later, Jamie breaks into her room and takes it back. Because he was not the full owner in possession of the necklace during the crime, Jamie is guilty of petty theft by larceny.

  1. By Trick

Unlike petty theft by larceny, petty theft by trick relies on the defendant using deceit, essentially “tricking” someone so that they can steal from them. Legally, one can be charged with this kind of petty theft if the prosecution can prove that the defendant’s obtainment of the property happened because of the defendant’s use of deceit or fraud and that the defendant committed the theft with the intent of depriving the rightful owner of what was stolen permanently or until the absence becomes noticeable to the owner. It is important to note that petty theft by trick relies on the fact that the victim is deceived which results in the defendant’s stealing of the property. This does not mean the victim was tricked into consenting to the theft. In the case of petty theft by trick, the owner is tricked into losing possession of the property but not the legal ownership of it.

Example: Ashley convinces people that she has access to a new gaming console and that they can trade in their old gaming consoles for the new one when she actually cannot fulfill her end of the deal. She drives to the pawnshop and sells the consoles for $75 each. Because of her deception that resulted in her coming into possession with the gaming consoles, she is guilty of petty theft by trick.

  1. By Embezzlement

In the case of petty theft by embezzlement, the defendant can be convicted if the prosecution can prove that not only did the owner entrust the defendant with the property but also that the defendant used the property to benefit themselves while depriving the owner of it. One indication of embezzlement is whether one caused the victim to suffer a loss while taking advantage of them. This charge is still applicable even if the defendant had the intent to return the property. In the case of embezzlement, one’s intent does not play a factor.  Likewise, even if one intends to return the property, they cannot use that to refute a petty theft by embezzlement charge in court.

Example: Stacey pays Connor, her next-door neighbor, to be her handyman. She allows him to rest in her garage and use her electricity while he is on the job. He links an extension cord from her garage to his house, thus using $800 worth of electricity. Because he used a large amount of electricity that was not his for his own benefit, Connor is charged with petty theft by embezzlement.

  1. By False Pretense

Petty theft by false pretense, unlike petty theft by trick, involves the defendant persuading the victim to allow them to take possession of their property under the guise of false information and deception. The fraudulent representation is crucial to the court’s ruling of petty theft by false pretense; without evidence indicating their intent to deceive, the prosecution cannot make proclaim the defendant guilty as easily.

Example: Carrie sells an oven to Pam, telling her that shipping will take a week. However, Pam finds out that that Carrie knowingly pretended to sell ovens that were not hers and ran off with Pam’s money. In this scenario, Carrie is guilty of petty theft by false pretenses because she knowingly deceived Pam into giving her money.

Repercussions of Petty Theft

Should the prosecution be successful in establishing the verdict as guilty of petty theft, the punishment could be one of three things. The first one is a fine. Because petty theft falls into the category of misdemeanors, the amount of the fine will not exceed one thousand dollars. The second one is imprisonment. If someone gets charged with imprisonment, they’ll spend time in the county jail for six months at the most. The third option is both the fine and imprisonment. The penalty depends on the severity of the crime as well as one’s criminal record. If one has more than one offense on their criminal record, the prosecution will not be as lenient as they’d be for someone who is at their first offense. There is also the matter of restitution. Restitution is when one pays back the victim for the value of property that they stole. Most punishments for any kind of theft require restitution.  

How to Legally Defend Against Accusations of Petty Theft

As listed above, the punishment for petty theft are fines and time spent in the county jail. In addition to these consequences, the crime goes on a person’s criminal record. Having petty theft on one’s criminal record affects one’s life in various ways like greatly reducing one’s chances at obtaining employment, housing, and higher education. In order to avoid these repercussions, it is important to contact a lawyer and be aware of the legal defenses that can contest any accusations of petty theft in court. For the team at San Diego Criminal Attorney, they can defend people against accusations of petty theft by proving a lack of intent, that one was wrongfully accused, or a mistake in fact.

  1. Lack of Intent

For petty theft, one of the main requirements is the person’s intention to take the property. So, if someone enters a business or a store without the initial intent of stealing something that is not theirs, they legally cannot be convicted of petty theft due to the absence of intent.

  1. Wrongfully Accused

To combat the accusation of petty theft, one can also prove that they are innocent and thus accused of a crime they did not commit. Whether the motive is personal or detached, the fact still remains that innocent people could be charged with the crime as a mistake. Once one can prove their innocence and convict the actual person who is guilty, they no longer have to worry about having petty theft on their criminal record or any of the fines and jail time associated with the crime.

  1. Mistake in Fact

Sometimes, there is a misunderstanding when one is accused of petty theft. For instance, when a witness misinterprets the situation when they think they see someone taking property that is not rightfully theirs. Through this misinterpretation, one can be mistakenly charged with petty theft when they actually did not steal property that is not rightfully theirs.

What Happens If It Is Your First Offense?

Sometimes, if it is your first criminal offense committing petty theft, the prosecution will be more lenient in accordance to California Penal Code Section 491.1 (a). Section 491.1 (a) states that if the value of the property stole is not over $50 and if it is the defendant’s first offense ever, then the prosecution may decide to reduce a misdemeanor charge to one of infraction. Otherwise, you’ll most likely receive a fine that does not exceed $400, up to three years of informal probation, community service hours, or any combination of the three options. If you’ve had a prior criminal record with a charge of a violence-related crime such as being a sex offender or committing manslaughter while driving under the influence, the prosecution is less likely to reduce the charge from a misdemeanor to an infraction and the charge of petty theft will go on your criminal record.

What is an Infraction?

An infraction is a less severe charge than a misdemeanor and a felony. With an infraction, the penalty is also greatly reduced, becoming a fine of no more than $250. Infractions also do not appear on criminal records. Since criminal records influence how employers, higher education systems, and real estate agents, among other people involved in daily life, having a lawyer who can persuade the prosecution to reduce a misdemeanor charge to an infraction charge is crucial.

Petty Theft vs. Grand Theft

One can distinguish between petty theft and grand theft by the value of what is stolen. If one steals something that is worth less than $950, they are charged with petty theft, which is categorized as a misdemeanor. When someone is convicted of petty theft, they are penalized with a fine that is worth no more than $1000 or with imprisonment in the local county jail for no more than six months or both.

However, once someone steals something that is worth over $950, they are charged with grand theft. It is up to the prosecution to determine if it should count as a misdemeanor or a felony. Should it be charged as a misdemeanor, the punishment for grand theft is more severe than the punishment for petty theft. Compared to the limit of six months in the nearest county jail that is associated with petty theft, the punishment for grand theft is imprisonment in the nearest county jail for at most a year. Should the case be charged as a felony, the defendant is sentenced to be jailed in the California state prison. Sentences for felony grand theft range between sixteen months to three years.

The Law on Shoplifting

California Penal Code Section 459.5 defines shoplifting in slightly different terms to petty theft by larceny, although there is overlap between the two definitions. Shoplifting is defined as the instance when one enters a building with the intent to steal property or merchandise that is valued at $950 or less. The theft must take place while the building or establishment is open to the public; any other instance of such theft would count towards burglary.

Under the California Penal Code Section 459, the definition of burglary is established as the instance when a person enters a place with the intent to steal property. This is different from shoplifting on the basis that shoplifting relies on the business or establishment being open to the public while burglary does not. There are two cases of burglary: the first-degree burglary being the burglary of someone’s place of residence and the second-degree burglary being encompassing all other places. First-degree burglary is classified as a penalty and the penalty for it consists of time spent in the state prison for a time period of two to six years. Second-degree burglary may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. As a misdemeanor, the penalty is a sentence of no more than a year in the local county jail. As a felony, the time spent in the county jail is higher; one spends between sixteen months to three years in jail.

Intent in Regards to Shoplifting

Intent is a vital aspect to a shoplifting charge. If one enters an establishment with the intent to steal property but get caught before they can succeed, that person can still be arrested on the grounds of shoplifting. Likewise, if one does not enter a business with the intent of shoplifting but commits theft anyway, they cannot be charged with shoplifting. However, they can still be charged with petty theft by larceny. This differentiation from burglary and the specification of a charge related to petty theft by larceny was instated in 2014 by Proposition 47. Before this law, shoplifting was charged within the grounds of burglary, which is classified as a felony. Shoplifting is punished as a misdemeanor, unless the defendant has had more than one charge on their criminal record. The penalty for shoplifting is the same as petty theft:  no more than six months in the county jail, a fine of no more than one thousand dollars, or both. Should someone receive the charge of shoplifting in the form of a felony, the consequences get more severe: time in the local county jail from a range of sixteen months to three years, a fine that does not exceed ten thousand dollars, or both. The legal defense against the charges of shoplifting are the same as petty theft: evidence that proves lack of intent, wrongfully accused, and mistake in fact.

Contacting a San Diego Petty Theft Attorney Near Me

Hopefully you found this article to be informative and insightful. If you have any questions regarding petty theft, the different forms it can take, the penalties associated with it, the legal defenses against a conviction, or any other legal aspects concerning it, don’t hesitate to call our San Diego Criminal Lawyer at 619-880-5474. Our team of lawyers are here to help you with any of your legal needs concerning petty theft that you might have. We offer free case evaluation and consultation without any charge or commitment. So, if you’re in San Diego or anywhere else in Southern California and have an issue with petty theft convictions, call us now!