Grand Theft and Petty Theft
What is Theft?
Theft is essentially the physical taking and carrying away of property against the will of the true owner with the intent that the true owner not get the property back.
California Penal Code section 484 defines theft broadly, stating 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”
This broad definition encompasses many acts. See “What defenses are available?” (below) for more concise summary of what acts section 484 criminalizes.
What’s the Difference between Petty and Grand Theft?
“Theft is divided into two degrees, the first of which is termed grand theft; the second, petty theft.” (Penal Code section 486)
Grand theft is differentiated from petty theft either by the value of the property taken or by the nature of the item taken.
- California Penal Code section 487 defines “Grand Theft” as occurring when the value of the seized property is greater than $950 dollars (So it begins at $950.01)
- when domestic fowl, avocados, olives, fruits, nuts or other farm crops are taken in excess of $250 dollars.
- when a person steals a horse or bovine (Penal Code section 487a), real estate or real property over $250 (Penal Code section 487b),
What’s the Worst that could happen?
Grand Theft is punished pursuant to California Penal Code section 489 as either a misdemeanor or felony. Petty Theft is punished pursuant to Penal Code section 490.
- Grand Theft misdemeanor: 1-year county jail and up to a $1000 fine
- Grand Theft felony: 16 months or 2 or 3 years state prison maximum
- Petty Theft: Up to 6 months in county jail and a fine not to exceed $1,000 (misdemeanor only)
Also, under Article I section 28 of the California constitution, any person convicted of a crime must be ordered to pay restitution to the victim. Restitution is the amount that the victim lost because of the alleged criminal conduct. So in addition to fines and jail, a person will generally be ordered to repay whatever the value that was allegedly taken.
Offenders for shoplifting also are required to pay a $500 dollar civil fine to the store owner separate from any criminal fines and restitution order. This is most common with department and chain stores.
What defenses are available?
To be convicted at a trial, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that
- The defendant took possession of property owned by someone else;
- The defendant took the property without the owner’s consent;
- The defendant moved the property even a small distance and kept it for any period of time, however brief AND;
- When the defendant took the property she intended to deprive the owner of it permanently or to remove it from the owner’s possession for so extended a period of time that the owner would be deprived of a major portion of the value or enjoyment of the property.
Theft is therefore a specific intent crime. The prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that at the time the property was taken, the intent of the defendant was to permanently deprive the owner of the objects possession or use.
How does a prosecutor prove what a person intended? Juries are allowed to rely on circumstantial evidence to prove any or all elements of a charged crime. Circumstantial evidence of intent can come from the acts of the defendant. If a defendant took a piece of property, and ran off with it, without any prior approval of the owner, a jury could infer that the defendant intended to permanently deprive the owner of the property and convict the defendant of theft.
Claim of Right or Reasonable Mistake
A claim of right defense is one that asserts that the defendant is the true owner of the property.
A reasonable mistake of fact is a complete defense to the charge of theft, and many other general and specific intent offenses. If a defendant believed some fact, that if true, would make the defendant’s act not a crime, he is not guilty of the charged crime
Defendant took a lawnmower from a neighbor, and when defendant took the mower he actually believed he was the rightful owner of the lawnmower. Defendant had earlier that year lent the neighbor a lawnmower nearly identical to the one the defendant took. At the time the defendant took the lawnmower, there was only one mower in the neighbor’s garage and the neighbor had repeatedly ignored defendant’s requests to return it.
In this case, the defendant would likely not be guilty of theft, because of his belief the lawnmower was his, and viewed objectively, his mistake was one a normal person might make.
What should I do if I am charged with Theft?
You should immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney, like those at Manshoory Law Group, APC to assist you in analyzing the specific facts of your case, preparing and presenting defenses before and during trial, and making sure you understand your rights and helping you enforce them. The risks of a petty or grand theft conviction are too great to go-it alone. Call now for a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney (877)977-7750.