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Petty Theft

Why You Need an Attorney if Charged with Petty Theft in California

Being arrested for petty theft in California means a possible fine of up to $1,000 and jail time for up to six months. In some cases, the court can impose both punishments. Depending on the facts involved, the prosecutor could either charge the act as misdemeanor or an infraction.

If you or someone you know is facing charges of petty theft, contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. If convicted of petty theft, the charge will be entered into your criminal history record, which could affect employment opportunities. A criminal defense attorney can work on your behalf to reduce and possibly dismiss these charges.

Types of Theft Crimes in California

California divides theft crimes into two categories. One category is petty theft; the other is grand theft. Grand theft was chargeable when specific types of property were taken regardless of the value before the passage of Prop 47 but have since been changed on the books:

  • California Proposition 47 was initially called The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act and was a referendum passed by voters in November of 2014. The proposition redefined some nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies. This proposition was intended to expire in 2017 but has been extended by Governor Jerry Brown until November of 2022.

With the passing of Prop 47, grand theft is only charged if the property taken has a value of more than $950.00. Petty theft is now charged for any items taken with a value less than $950.00. If the value of the property taken is less than $50.00, you would be charged with an infraction or misdemeanor unless there are other convictions on your criminal record.

Definition of Theft under California Law

Under the California Statute, penal code 484(a) theft is defined as a person taking, carrying, leading or driving away with personal property belonging to another. It is also considered theft to fraudulently appropriate property that has been placed in your trust, or to defraud someone of their money, personal or real estate, or labor. Another form of theft under the law is causing another to falsely report their wealth to obtain possession of that wealth or labor.

Degrees of Theft under California Law

The two different degrees of theft under penal code 486 include grand theft and petty theft. These thefts are broken down into four separate penal codes:

  • Penal Code 459.5 defines shoplifting as going into a commercial business with the intent to commit larceny during that business's hours of operation. The value of the property does not exceed $950 to be considered shoplifting. If an entry is made after business hours, the act is considered burglary. Shoplifting is charged as a misdemeanor unless you have other convictions on your record.
  • Penal Code 487 defines grand theft with the following criteria:
    • When personal property, money, or labor taken exceeds $950 in value
    • Item taken was a plane, automobile or other vehicles of transportation
    • Animals such as a horse
    • Certain farm produce including fruit and nuts
    • Aquaculture products valued at more than $250 and taken from a research facility or fishery
    • Property taken off of another with physical force
  • Penal Code 490.1 defines petty theft with the following criteria:
    • When personal property, money, or labor taken exceeds the amount of $50
    • The property or services taken has a value less than $950
    • Violations under this section charged as an infraction will receive a fine not to exceed $250
  • Penal Code 490.2 (a) defines Proposition 47 with the following criteria:
    • It does not apply to the theft of a firearm
    • It does not apply to a theft that will be charged as an infraction
    • Property, money, or labor taken from another individual or others but does not exceed a value of $950 will be charged as a petty theft and will be punishable as a misdemeanor, unless the person charged as more than one conviction on their criminal history

Elements Involved in the Crime of Petty Theft

One of the most common charges in California are those for theft crimes. Most of the crimes related to theft involve shoplifting, but under Penal Code 484(a) and Penal Code 488 any theft that has been valued under $950, was taken directly off another person, and is not an automobile or gun can fall under the petty theft section.

Shoplifting is considered by prosecutors to be petty theft by larceny, and there are certain elements they will have to prove to obtain a conviction. They must show you took the property which you knew to be owned by someone else and were not given permission to take it. It will have to be proven; you took the item or items to another location, no matter how close or far away from its original site, and kept it for any period of time. The last thing to prove is that the property did not have a value of over $950. These are some of the crimes of theft that occur where a person will be charged for petty theft:

  • Tricking a person into giving you their property while they believe it to be only a temporary transaction and you attempt to turn it into a permanent action. Examples of this type of theft would be taking your computer to a home repair shop to have work done on your device. The repairman takes your computer but then refuses to return it to you. This form of theft is considered theft by trick.
  • Deceiving or using false pretense to gain property from someone. Examples of this form of theft would be a person standing out on the sidewalk selling tickets to an upcoming raffle. This person takes your money with the assurance you'll be contacted if you win, when in fact there is no raffle, and you will never have the chance of winning any prize. The person would be charged with theft by false pretense as they deceived you into giving them money.
  • Embezzlement is considered a white-collar crime and involves changing the ownership of property illegally. People usually commit this form of crime when they are in a position of trust and then steal money from accounts they've been entrusted to care for.
  • Burglary is defined under California Penal Code 459 as when you enter a room, building or other structure with the intent to commit a felony-level crime, petty theft, or grand theft. Burglary is divided into either a first or second-degree charge. First-degree burglary is always a felony and is defined as entering a residence which is occupied. The second-degree is assigned when entering an uninhabited dwelling with the intent to steal property.
  • Examples of shoplifting charged as petty theft would be a woman going into a retail clothing store and choosing several garments to try on in the fitting room. While in the room, she hides one or more of the items and upon exiting the fitting area begins to head towards the exit. Security can stop her, and the business can charge her with shoplifting. This charge is valid even though she never exited the store. The statue only requires that the property was intended to be removed which can be proven by her concealment of the items.
  • An example where shoplifting might be misunderstood is if you are purchasing multiple small items. While at the checkout you lay what you think are all of the pieces down, but it is discovered on the way out the door, one unpaid item is still tucked in your hand. You could not be charged or be held criminally liable for petty theft in this situation as there was no intent to take the property without paying.

Is Burglary the Same as Shoplifting?

Shoplifting is defined differently from burglary. Shoplifting occurs when a business is open to customers, and you enter with the intent to steal merchandise. The items must be valued at less than $950. If you have prior convictions on your criminal record, shoplifting will more than likely be charged as a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

If your charges fall under burglary and it is considered first-degree, you are facing a prison sentence from two to six years. In addition to prison time, you could be fined up to $10,000 and face formal probation when released from prison. This conviction is also recorded under California Strike Three Law. 

If the charge is filed as second-degree felony burglary, you are facing a sentence from sixteen months to three years in jail, formal probation when released from jail, and a maximum fine of up to $10,000. Second-degree misdemeanor burglary means up to twelve months in jail, summary probation, and a maximum fine up to $1,000.

These sentences are extremely serious, and the conviction of burglary will significantly impact your criminal records. Having these charges on your criminal history means finding suitable employment or being able to rent may be affected. Call your criminal defense attorney to help you solve these charges and look for possible reductions or dismissals.

Why You Need a Defense Attorney if Charged with Petty Theft

If you are charged with petty theft, you could be looking at a sentence of up to six months in jail, if convicted. The court could also impose stay-away orders, restitution, and other fines. The prosecution can reduce your charges to an infraction under California Penal Code 490.1 if this is your first offense or they could request you complete a diversion program to avoid the charge appearing on your criminal history.

A criminal defense attorney will help you to get the lightest sentence possible, or they can defend your actions to have the charges dropped. The charge of petty theft can only be applied if you had the intent to remove property or defraud another willfully. If you honestly and reasonably believed the action in question was not performed with the intention of taking an item illegally, your attorney will help prove your case to the prosecution.

If the case is considered a 'wobbler', the prosecution can choose to charge you with a felony. This charge could result in a sentence of up to three years in prison with much higher fines. The conviction would appear on your criminal records and anyone performing a background check on you such as landlords or employers will be able to see the file.

Who Decides What the Charge Will Be?

The prosecution makes the decision on how you will be charged. They will look into your case and determine if it will be an infraction, misdemeanor, or felony based on your criminal background. They will also consider the value of the property in question that was reported stolen as well as any circumstances surrounding the event.

Before this charges are filed, it is essential you have proper legal counsel. They will fight for you to get the charges reduced or dismissed to try and prevent any serious damage to your criminal records. You will also want your attorney present and informed if charges are filed, and you are assigned a court date.

First Court Date

When are first assigned to appear in court, it is called an arraignment. The arraignment is where you will tell the judge whether or not you are guilty of the charges. If you've been charged with a misdemeanor, your attorney can make the court appearance without you, however; if charged with a felony, you are required to appear in person.

What Can Happen with a Conviction

If you are convicted with petty theft, you could be required to pay restitution. This sentence requires you to pay the victim back for the value of the item or items taken. Restitution is almost always required with a charge of theft.

You can also be placed on probation or parole with a conviction. Parole or probation means a parole officer will supervise your actions for a defined length of time. This sentencing can include paying fees, keeping appointments with the officer assigned to your case, completing a community service program, be subject to alcohol and/or drug screenings, or any other requirement your parole officer might require. Failing to comply with any of the officer's request means you will be sent to jail to sit out your entire sentence.

If community service is required from you, it means your punishment includes performing a specified amount of time working with a government or non-profit organization. California uses the CalTrans Program for most of its community service sentences which involves freeway cleanup.

Being charged with petty theft is a stressful situation as it can affect your daily life in many ways. Speak with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to talk about your legal situation and gain their help in fighting to reduce or dismiss these charges.

If Convicted of Petty Theft with a Prior

If you have a conviction (prior) on your records for petty theft, carjacking under Penal Code 215, Robbery under Penal Code 211, grand theft, burglary, auto theft under VC 10851 or a felony violation under California Penal Code 496, you are facing increased penalties. The courts will take any of these convictions into consideration when sentencing for a new charge.

Who Can Help with Petty Theft Charges Near Me?

Leah Legal Criminal Defense is your answer to finding a dedicated defense for any criminal charges. They are ready to help you no matter what stage of criminal proceedings you are in to provide the best legal defense possible. Call the office at (818) 484-1100 and schedule an appointment to discuss your case. The earlier you call, the better chance the team at Leah Legal Criminal Defense has to find the best resolution to your case.

If you or someone you love is facing charges of petty theft you can further throughout our website to find out more on how serious this can affect your future. Getting the best legal defense counsel is essential to protect your future, and Leah Legal has the experience you will need to ensure your future and protect your rights.

At Leah Legal, you will appreciate how personalized your attention is and how well they understand this stressful and complicated time you are going through. They will keep you informed and communicate honestly throughout your case to help make this difficult time move more smoothly. Call our Los Angeles criminal lawyer today 818-484-1100 and schedule an appointment with one of the strongest and most creative defense teams available.