Petty theft involving offenses like shoplifting is most people's first criminal charge. Thus, making this experience and uncertainty of the charge's possible consequences more terrifying because you don't know what to expect. A petty theft charge may sound like a less serious offense, but it carries serious consequences that can affect an offender's professional life, reputation, and immigration status for non-citizens.
Our criminal defense attorneys at Long Beach Criminal Attorney have significant experience and skills to help you or your loved ones fight for the best possible outcome from a petty theft charge. We know how different courts around the state treat petty theft charges and what defense strategies are likely to work to resolve your unique case.
Understanding Petty Theft Offense Under Penal Code 484 PC
Penal Code 484 PC is the general theft law that makes it unlawful for you to take another person's property, asset, or money to possess it as your own. Two main types of theft are punishable under this law, including:
- Grand theft (PC 487)
- Petty theft (PC 488)
This article will particularly focus on petty theft to give you insight into helpful steps you can take to protect your interest and legal rights when you face this type of theft crime charge. While grand theft involves the unlawful taking of another person's property worth more than $950, petty theft under Penal Code 488 PC involves the unlawful taking of property, assets, or money worth $950 or less.
Note that your case will be a grand theft regardless of the property value when you steal weapons like firearms or grenades. To obtain a conviction for a petty theft offense like shoplifting which is very common among youths, the prosecutor with the jurisdiction over your case must prove the following elements of the crime:
- You took property belonging to another person
- You took the property without the owner's permission or consent
- When you took the property, you had the intentions to deprive the owner of his/her rights to possess it
- There was moving of the property, even a short distance, and you took possession of it for some time, however brief
- The properties' value is worth $950 or less
Common Forms of Theft Offenses That Are Chargeable Under Petty Theft Law
A petty theft charge can arise from several forms of theft as long the property in question does not exceed $950. Below are everyday forms of theft offenses that are chargeable and punishable under petty theft law:
Theft by Larceny
Most cases that lead to petty theft charges involve a particular form of theft known as larceny. You commit theft by larceny when you take personal property of another person or business, including:
- Electronic equipment
- Sporting gear or equipment
For a conviction of this offense during the trial, the prosecutor will establish the same elements of the crime as mentioned above for petty theft.
Theft by Trick
Like it sounds, this offense involves tricking another person into willingly giving or handing over his/her property or money with the idea that it is only for a temporary duration, but it turns out permanent. For example, this kind of theft can happen when a man convinces you that he can repair and clean your jewelry, and you hand them over to him willingly for those services. Then, he decides never to return your jewelry, and he keeps them for himself.
In that kind of situation, you did not intend to transfer the jewelry ownership to the defendant, and he/she could be subject to petty theft charges if the jewelry value were less than $950.
Theft by Embezzlement
Violating embezzlement laws under Penal Code 503 PC is another form of theft that can make you subject to petty theft charges. Theft by embezzlement involves the unlawful taking of another person's property because you are in a position of entrustment.
For instance, you could be guilty of petty theft by embezzlement when you are an employee in a bank or a financial institution. Then, you decide to steal money from a client's account because you have the authority and ability to access it.
Even if you had intentions of returning the money, it could not work as a legal defense strategy during the trial. The prosecutor will seek to secure a conviction against you for the crime of petty theft by embezzlement if the money in question is below $950.
Theft by False Pretense or Fraud
According to Penal Code 532 PC, you commit theft by false claim or pretense or fraud when:
- You knowingly and intentionally deceive a property owner through false pretenses or claims
- Persuade him/her to let you take possession of the property
- The property owner let you take possession of his/her property because he/she was relying on the false claims or pretenses
You will be guilty of this offense if the prosecutor can prove to the judge beyond a reasonable doubt that the property owner was relying on your false claims or pretenses. That means if the property owner didn't rely on your false claims or pretenses, he/she wouldn't let you take possession of his/her property.
Potential Consequences of a Petty Theft Conviction
Typically a prosecutor will file a petty theft charge as a misdemeanor if you don't have a prior conviction history of the same offense or other crimes of moral turpitude. A first-time misdemeanor petty theft offense can make you subject to the following consequences:
- Six months incarceration in the county jail
- A fine amounting up to $1, 000
Instead of a jail sentence, sometimes a judge may award you misdemeanor probation. With the services of an experienced attorney, you might be able to reduce a misdemeanor petty theft charge to an infraction offense under Penal Code 490 PC, which carries less severe consequences.
Your attorney might also be able to convince the prosecutor and the judge to allow you to participate in a pretrial diversion program to avoid a criminal conviction. A pretrial diversion program will enable you to participate in courses that can help you reform and become a law-abiding citizen.
The consequences of a petty theft conviction are even more severe if you have a prior petty theft conviction history. According to Penal Code 666 PC, petty theft with a prior is chargeable as a wobbler, which means the prosecutor can file your case as either a felony or a misdemeanor.
Petty theft with a prior can make you subject to up to eighteen months in the county jail or two to three years in the state prison, depending on the severity of your alleged charge. Since the court describes petty theft as an offense of moral turpitude, this charge's conviction can also result in other consequences apart from a jail term and hefty fines.
For instance, if you are a non-citizen, you could be subject to deportation and inadmissibility consequences. You will need a strong legal defense throughout the case, whether you are a citizen or non-citizen because a conviction of a "moral turpitude" crime like petty theft can affect your ability to secure employment and your general reputation.
Petty Theft Legal Defense Tips
Your criminal defense attorney can be able to challenge the petty theft allegations or accusations against you by raising the following legal defense arguments:
As mentioned above, you are only guilty of violating petty theft laws under Penal Code 488 PC if the property owner didn't have consent that you are taking possession of his/her property. Therefore, it would be a reasonable and solid legal defense for an attorney to argue that the property owner had a consent that you are taking possession of his/her property.
Lack of Intent
If you never had the intent to steal the property in question, your attorney can raise this argument in court to bargain for a less severe charge or dismissal of the charges. For instance, if you were delivering some items in a truck, and mistakenly or absent-mindedly, you drive away with goods or items worth $950 or less.
In that kind of situation, you should not be guilty of petty theft because you didn't have the intent to take or keep the goods or items in question.
A wrongful arrest resulting from false accusations can make you subject to petty theft charges even if you did not commit the crime. Petty theft charges arising from a false allegation or accusation mostly happen in business dealings. For instance, when employees reach a point of accusing each other of stealing items in case the deals don't work.
This legal defense argument could work out in your favor for exoneration of the charge or for an alternative charge with a less severe charge in that kind of situation.
Ownership belief would be another viable and dependable defense argument for a petty theft charge if you had a reasonable belief that the property in question was yours before taking possession of it. The judge could find a claim of right argument reasonable if the belief that the property was yours was in good faith.
However, if your reason to take the property in question was to settle a debt or a dispute, this legal defense argument will not be applicable. Do not let a petty theft charge under Penal Code 484 and 488 PC limit your future. It is imperative to consult a criminal defense attorney as soon as you can when the police arrest you for any petty theft charge.
A skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney can give you some legal assistance to negotiate the best possible outcome to avoid a petty theft criminal conviction on your record.
Frequently Asked Questions on Petty Theft
Most people who run afoul with the law will ask several questions to make right informed and knowledgeable decisions afterward, which is a wise idea. Below are a few common frequently asked questions on petty theft:
Can I Expunge a Conviction for Petty Theft on My Criminal Record?
If you have a conviction for a petty theft offense on your criminal record, your attorney can help you seek an expungement under Penal Code 1203.4. An expungement releases you from consequences and disabilities resulting from a petty theft conviction.
After expungement of a petty theft conviction on your criminal record, you don't have to disclose this information to a prospective employer inquiring about your criminal history for employment. However, for you to qualify for an expungement, you must meet the following legal requirements:
- Complete your probation successfully
- You should not have a current criminal charge
- You must complete your petty theft conviction sentence
Can a Petty Theft Conviction Affect My Gun Rights?
A conviction for a petty theft charge under Penal Code 484 and 488 PC will not impact your gun rights. While some felony and misdemeanor convictions can lead to loss of your rights to own and possess a gun, a conviction resulting from a petty theft charge will not affect your gun rights.
Why Should I Hire a Criminal Defense Attorney for My Case?
Apart from increasing your chances of avoiding unbearable consequences resulting from a petty theft conviction, hiring a criminal defense attorney can help you in many other ways. For example, your attorney can appear in most court appearances on your behalf to fight for your best interests.
It gives you peace of mind knowing someone will appear in your court appearances following a petty theft charge, especially if you are a busy person with a tight schedule.
Find a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
There are several legal defense strategies a reliable and experienced criminal defense attorney can apply to fight for your best interests following a petty theft charge. If you want the services of an attorney who will fight for your best interests aggressively and selflessly, Long Beach Criminal Attorney is here for you. Call us today at 562-308-7807 and let our attorneys access your case for an outstanding legal representation.