How Are "Theft Crimes" Defined in California?
Theft, or "larceny," is the wrongful, willful taking of the property of another person without his/her consent, with the intention to keep the property permanently (or for a significant period of time.)
The perpetrator must also have "moved" the property in question and have "kept" it in his/her possession. But keeping it even a very short period of time or moving it even a very short distance can qualify to make it a theft.
The object stolen can be anything of value, whether money, real estate, automobiles, handguns, personal property, labor/services, or items for sale in a store.
Directly taking an object, withholding it or the use of it from its rightful owner, or taking away a significant portion of the value of an item, all can count as theft.
Thefts can be accomplished by taking an item while the owner is not present, by armed robbery, by abusing a trust, by fraud or trick, or by refusing to return a borrowed item when the owner demands it back.
Types of California Theft Crimes
There are many specific crimes under the general heading of "theft crimes." At Long Beach Criminal Defense Attorneys, we understand the fine distinctions between some of these crimes and the factors that each type of case tend to turn on.
An exhaustive list and treatment would be prohibitively long, but here are some of the main facts about the most common California theft crimes:
- Petty Theft
California Penal Code Sections 484 and 488 define "petty theft" as the wrongful taking of property valued at $950 or less. This is a misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to 6 months in jail, probation for as long as three years, a fine of up to $1,000.
However, if you stole something of only very small value and you have no prior criminal record, petty theft could be a mere infraction. On the other hand, if the petty theft was a repeat offense, you can be charged with a felony called "petty theft with a prior" under PC 666.
- Grand Theft
PC 487 defines "grand theft" as the wrongful taking of someone else's property that is worth $950 or more. This charge can be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the value of the stolen property, the facts of the case, and the defendant's past criminal history.
As a misdemeanor, grand theft is punishable by up to 6 months in jail, a maximum fine of $1,000, and informal probation. As a felony, grand theft is punishable by between 16 months and 3 years in state prison.
Two special cases of grand theft are grand theft auto and grand theft firearm. Even if a firearm is worth less than $950, it still counts as grand theft, but only if the gun is valued at over $950 does it count as a felony. Grand theft auto, however, requires the car be valued at over $950. These two crimes will have enhanced punishments compared to "ordinary" grand theft.
PC 459 defines "burglary" as entering any "structure" while having an intention to commit a theft or other crime once inside. While "breaking and entering" is typically a lesser included offense, it need not be for it to be burglary. Even if someone entered a building legally but did so with an intention to steal something inside, it is burglary.
Entering an inhabited building is 1st Degree Burglary and is a felony. It is punishable by 2 to 6 years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Second Degree Burglary covers any other type of building, but generally it is a commercial building. This can be a misdemeanor or a felony. As a misdemeanor, it is punishable by 12 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. As a felony, it is punishable by 16 months to 3 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
"Shoplifting" (PC 459.5) is similar to burglary in that it involves entering a commercial building to commit a theft. But shoplifting is defined as entering such a building while it is open for business and to commit petty theft.
Shoplifting is normally a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. If one has certain serious priors on his/her record, however, shoplifting can be charged as a felony.
Under PC 211, "robbery" is defined as the use of force or fear to wrongfully take property out of the immediate possession of another person against his/her will.
"Immediate possession" of property need not mean actually holding/touching it. It can be simply under that person's control at the time. And it does not have to be taken directly from the owner to count as robbery.
PC 211 is a felony charge, punishable by from 2 to 9 years in state prison. First-degree robberies, committed against transportation workers, someone at an ATM, or in an inhabited building, will receive the harsher sentences.
- Receiving Stolen Property
PC 496 prohibits the purchase or receipt of property that one knows, or should have known, was stolen. You can be charged with this crime regardless of how the property was originally stolen.
You must have known that you acquired the property, and if you only took the property because you intended to turn it over to police or the rightful owner, you are not guilty.
This crime can be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the details of the case and on how much the stolen property was valued at.
- Mail Theft
To willfully take US mail from a mailbox, to otherwise steal someone else's mail, or to knowingly possess stolen mail is criminalized under PC 530.5e.
Mail theft is also a federal crime, which greatly increases the potential total penalties upon a conviction.
Common Defense Against California Theft Charges
While each specific theft crime and each particular case will call for a different defense strategy, there are nonetheless common general types of defenses that we have used at Long Beach Criminal Defense Attorneys to great effect. Our long experience with a great diversity of case-types means we know exactly which sort of defense will be most effective in each situation.
We always fight first and foremost for a dismissal pre-trial, then for an acquittal; but we also possess well seasoned negotiation skills we can deploy if/when a plea deal would be in our client's best interests. For example, if the prosecution has insurmountable evidence and it's a first-time offense, it is often possible to avoid a conviction if you make full restitution and serve time at community service.
Here are some of our most common defenses in theft crime cases:
- Ownership or Belief of Ownership
It may be that the property in question was actually yours, or even if it wasn't, you may have had a reasonable, genuine belief that it was yours. If so, it is not theft. At worst, it is a mistake or misunderstanding.
- Owner's Consent
If you had the owner's consent to take his/her property, or if you reasonably believed yourself to have such consent, it is not a theft crime. It is possible a misunderstanding arose between the owner the defendant. But there are other scenarios where an owner's consent defense would be used: for example, if an insurance fraud scheme involved someone arranging for a friend to "steal" his car. That would be fraud, but not theft. But if an owner suspects you will try to steal his/her property and sets you up to catch you in the act, the act is still a theft crime.
- Under Duress
It could be that you committed the theft act, but only because someone else had threatened or forced you to do it against your will. This would mean you did not truly act "willfully" under California law. In that case, you cannot be convicted of theft.
- Police Entrapment
In many instances, an undercover law enforcement officer may have enticed a defendant to commit the theft. It may be that the defendant would never have committed the crime except for the police entrapment. For this defense to work, however, you must have had no "prior inclination" to commit the crime and the enticement must have been fairly direct and strong.
- False Accusation
It is possible for a theft charge to be simply fabricated or that you may have been "framed." Perhaps, someone had a grudge with you and this is their way of "getting even." Or, it may be you are a victim of mistaken identity, especially if the real thief was wearing a disguise and committed the theft at night.
Besides knowing valid, effective defense strategies and when to use them, it is also critical to know what will not work as a defense. Here are some non-defenses to keep in mind when it comes to California theft crimes:
- You attempted to return property you had earlier stolen to its rightful owner. This could help as a mitigating factor during sentencing, but it cannot act as a valid defense. However, if you had an intention to return the property at the time of taking it, and had the ability to do so, that could be a viable defense.
- You stole from your own spouse. This defense does not work at all if you and your spouse were not living together at the time of the theft. If you were, however, it would not be theft but misappropriating marital property.
- The property itself was illegal anyway. Even if the property you stole was itself illegal, that does not change the fact that taking it was a violation of one or more California theft crime statutes.
California Prop 47
Since 2014, when Prop 47 was passed by California voters, there are a number of formerly felony-level theft crimes that were reduced to misdemeanors. If you were convicted of one of these felonies prior to Prop 47 passing, another facet of our defense services is to help you get your sentence reduced to a misdemeanor.
Contact Us Today For Help
At Long Beach Criminal Defense Attorneys, we stand ready to rush to your assistance at a moment's notice with top-tier legal advice and representation for any and all California theft crime defense cases.
We are not afraid to take on "difficult cases," and our level of experience is such that we have certainly seen cases like yours in the past and will know how to build you the strongest possible defense.
For a free consultation, call us anytime 24/7 at (562) 308-7807. Or, you can come for an in-person consultation to our office, located