To many people, Petty Theft seems like a simple offense that can be settled outside the courts. However, do you know the intensity of its penalties once convicted? Think about this - if you were an employee, you could immediately lose your job, while job seekers get locked out of new job opportunities. Immigrants risk deportation or revocation of their citizenship, among other consequences.
If you are in Los Angeles and you are arrested for Petty Theft, please contact The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney immediately. Our experienced criminal defense attorneys are ready to work on your case today.
An Overview of Petty Theft
Under the Laws of California, Theft is defined as intentionally taking another person’s property or item with a motive of permanently depriving the owner of their property. There are different forms of Thefts, as outlined in the law. Some of the common ones include Petty Theft, Shoplifting, and Grand Theft. In this article, we will mainly discuss Petty Theft.
Petty Theft is defined under Penal Codes 484 and 488 as a form of Theft on property valued below $950. It is categorized as a misdemeanor and ranks as one of the most common offenses in Los Angeles. Petty Theft is in different forms and occurs in different circumstances, but in most cases, the penalties are almost similar, except for unique felony cases. Some of the most common types of Petty Theft include:
Petty Theft by Larceny - This is the most common type of Petty Theft in Los Angeles today. For a Theft to qualify as Larceny, the suspect must attempt to move another person’s property, regardless of the distance, and kept it for some time. In this case, it is assumed that you are limiting the owner from comfortably using their property. However, hiding property from someone without the intent of permanently depriving them doesn’t qualify as Petty Theft by Larceny. Any person can be sued for Larceny regardless of the value of the property withheld.
Petty Theft by False Pretense - As the name suggests, Theft by False Pretense or as otherwise called Theft by Fraud under penal code 532, involves luring or convincing someone using deceit and Fraud with an intent to get property from them. In this case, the suspect convinces a property owner using false pretense for them to give up total possession of their property. Under the law, several factors amount to false pretense. They include:
- Knowingly giving another person false information
- Carelessly attesting that something is true, without having the facts right
- Failure to provide adequate information when you are obliged to provide
- Making false promises
All the above factors must be geared towards deFrauding someone their property for a case to qualify as Petty Theft. In addition, the prosecutor must prove to the courts that the intention of the suspect was actually to deprive the property through pretense.
Petty Thefts by false pretense are one of the most complicated forms of Petty Theft. This is because anyone can falsely sue another person with the case. For instance, in the case of a business deal gone sour, a partner can claim Theft by False Pretense to help them regain their investment. Owing to the complicated nature of Petty Theft by False Pretense, the prosecution must produce one of these supporting documents, to help convince the jury. They include:
- A faked writing, for example, fake ID or documents
- A handwritten memorandum of understanding, signed by both parties with a third party in place
- Testimony from at least two people
- A testimony from a single person with several other accompanying pieces of evidence
If well convinced, then the jury is at free-will to proceed with the convictions.
Petty Theft by Trick - There is a thin line between Petty Theft by Trick and Petty Theft by False Pretense. With the former, the owner of the property has no intention of transferring full ownership to the “thief,” but only transfers the possession. On the other end, for Petty Theft by False Pretense, the owner transfers all the ownership rights to the “thief.” Legally, several factors facilitate this kind of Theft. They include:
- You particularly knew that the property you are about to obtain was owned by another person
- The property owner forfeited their property to you due to false pretense or Fraud
- Your intentions were to either permanently deprive the property of the owner, or deprive the property for a substantial amount of time, such that the owner could no longer enjoy it
- The property owner didn’t intend to transfer full ownership of the property to you
Petty Theft by Embezzlement - It is also called white-collar Theft, and in most events affects entrusted people like employees. Legally, this form of Theft only occurs when:
- You are entrusted with a given property by the owner
- You Fraudulently use the property for your personal gain but not what you were entrusted to do
- When you used the property, you had intentions of permanently or temporarily limit the owner from using it
In such a scenario, someone may argue that they had the intention of returning it in the eventuality since there was no timeframe of entrustment. Interestingly, the law was priory aware of such a scenario and stripped off this kind of defense.
Penalties for Petty Theft
A Petty Theft offense is considered a misdemeanor under the laws of California. Some of the consequences of this offense include:
- A jail term not exceeding 6 (six) months in county jail
- A fine not exceeding $1000
- A combination of the fine and jail time
- Summary probation
However, in some situations, the charges can either escalate to a felony under the Penal Code 666 or in some instances, drastically reduced to an infraction as outlined in Penal Code 490.1. The intensity of the charges faced mainly depends on:
- The total value of property in question
- The amount of harm caused to the victim, whether physical or emotional
- Your criminal history
Petty Theft With Prior
If for instance, the suspect had a previous Petty Theft offense, then the charges may aggravate to a wobbler with prior pursuant to the laws under Penal Code § 666. The offense attracts a higher penalty of up to one-year jail term if taken as a misdemeanor.
Some of the prior crimes that facilitate this increase in penalties include Grand Theft, Petty Theft, Burglary, Grand Theft Auto, Robbery, and Carjacking. However, these offenses are not enough to guarantee a sentence of Petty Theft with a prior. Other factors must be considered. They include:
- If the previous crime involved stealing, Defrauding, or Embezzling property belonging to an elderly
- If you were previously convicted of a crime in the above list combined with either a previous sex offense that subjected you to register as a sex offender, or you had previously been convicted for a serious felony under penal code 667 (e) (2) (c) that include Murder, Attempted Murder, forcible sex crime, Vehicular Manslaughter, or Sex with a M
If treated as a felony under penal code § 666, it can attract a minimum of 16 months sentence in state prison. Depending on your criminal record, the jury can decide to give a heftier felony for Petty Theft, and this attracts a sentence of up to three years in state prison, and a fine not exceeding $10000.
Penalty on Immigrants
For immigrants, Theft is considered as a ‘crime of moral turpitude’ and can lead to temporary revocation of citizenship or naturalization. In worse scenarios, especially for repeat offenders, the government may opt to revoke your citizenship or even deport you immediately.
Possible Defenses for a Petty Theft Offense
Getting arrested for a Petty Theft offense doesn’t necessarily guarantee a conviction. You have a right to present viable defenses to help you explain and justify that you are innocent. It is not assured that the defenses will completely clear you from the case. However, you can rest assured that with the right defense team, then the intensity of the case might drastically drop. Some of the common defenses that will assist you during your Petty Theft case include:
Lack of intent - It is not a must that a suspect intended to steal a given item. Sometimes, a situation might have arisen, prompting an unintentional picking of another person’s property. For instance, if you are at a shop or a mall and you pick up something and accidentally forget to pay, or something that limits you from paying at the moment arises, then you don’t have a case to answer before the jury. This is mainly because, for a case to qualify as Theft, in our case, a Petty Theft, then there must be a proven intention of illegally getting the property.
However, most people tend to read malice from every situation, and if you accidentally get hold of any of their items, then they immediately file a case. Nonetheless, if you feel your conscious is clean and your legal team is intelligent enough to prove lack of intent, then saving yourself from such a case is very possible. If well convinced, the jury can permanently withdraw your case for lacking concrete evidence, but this will also primarily depend on your criminal record.
A claim of possession - Logically, a person cannot steal from themselves. In this context, if you feel that the property in question actually belonged to you, then you don’t have a case to answer. However, you have to claim possession of the property before the jury legally. You should present accompanying documents to defend that fact, for example, sale receipts.
In some other situations, the property might not belong to you, but you might have accidentally likened it to yours. In such a situation, the same case applies, you should present evidence to show why you thought the item was yours, for example, carry the other identical item, and if the comparison matches, then the case can be dropped.
Consented possession - If someone allowed you to take his/her property, then that doesn’t qualify as Petty Theft. For instance, if a person gave you their Laptop to check something online, the person is not obliged to sue you for Petty Theft. However, that is not always the case. If the same person had provided rules of using their item, but you ignored, then that is a form of Petty Theft. Additionally, if you got the item through false pretense, then consented possession doesn’t apply as a defense in this case.
False accusation - There are many instances of false Petty Theft accusations in Los Angeles today. If someone cannot find any of their items, and they immediately start accusing another person just by mere suspicion, then that is not concrete evidence to substitute a Petty Theft offense. However, the suspect must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accusations are false.
Asportation/carrying away - According to the law, a suspect must attempt to move an item even the slightest distance for the crime to qualify as Petty Theft. If you didn’t move the item, probably you just touched and left it at the same point you got it, then you can use that as a defense.
There are several more offenses that can be tied (or reduced/ escalated to) instead of Petty Theft. Some of these offenses are:
Grand Theft - Grand Theft has similar elements as Petty Theft; they both involve the unconsented picking of a property belonging to another person. The only difference comes in the value of the property in question. If the value exceeds $950, then that escalates to Grand Theft. As earlier discussed, Petty Theft penalties can rise to Grand Theft on special instances, like prior convictions. Additionally, there are some instances where Theft, regardless of the value of the property, automatically becomes a Grand Theft. They include when the property is:
- Directly taken from the body of the owner.
- An automobile of any type and value- also commonly known as Grand Theft Auto
- A firearm of any type and value- also commonly known as Grand Theft Firearm
The law treats Grand Theft as a wobbler, which is either charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. If taken as a misdemeanor, it attracts a 1 (one) year jail sentence in county jail. On the other end, a felony attracts a 16 (sixteen) months, two (2) years or three (3) years in county jail. However, if the case involves the Theft of a firearm, then the suspect is subject to a similar jail term but in the State Prison of California.
Burglary and Auto Burglary - Under the penal code 459 PC, a Burglary occurs anytime a person breaks into an enclosed area with an intention to commit a felony or steal property once inside. On the other hand, Auto Burglary is almost similar to Burglary only that in this case, an automobile is involved. If you are accused of stealing something from a car or an enclosed area, then you risk arraignment for either Auto Burglary or Petty Theft if the value of the item was below $950.
A Burglary is a form of a felony that attracts a three (3) year jail term in county jail. However, the penalty can escalate to even six (6) years in state prison if the area involved was inhabited. However, Burglary and Auto Burglary in inhabited areas are treated as a wobbler. Note that breaking into a shop with intent to commit Theft doesn’t qualify as Burglary; instead, you are charged with Shoplifting under the Penal Code 459.5.
Robbery - Robbery is also another common Theft offense under the penal code 211 PC. A Robbery involves the forceful taking of another person’s property without their consent, while still in their presence. Most of the time, Petty Theft can be tied to Robbery. For instance, when you try to pickpocket a person’s phone along the street, then the prosecution is at free-will to file both cases. Robbery is a serious offense and is always treated as a felony. It attracts a term of about two (2) to six (6 years) in California state prison.
Mail Theft - Under the penal code 530.5 (e), it is illegal to take someone else’s mail from a letter carrier, post office, or mailbox. However, this offense is often difficult to substantiate since the value of a mail is not easy to determine, making this offense a different form of Theft altogether. The offense is treated as a misdemeanor, and like Petty Theft, it attracts a maximum of one (1) year in county jail.
FAQs on Petty Theft
What is the difference between California Petty Theft and Grand Theft?
Traditionally, all forms of Theft in California carried a similar punishment provided there was the intent of Theft, or the property was a car or a firearm, regardless of the value in question. However, in 2014, there was a voter proposition that was passed as Prop 47 that drew the thin line between Grand Theft and Petty Theft. From then, Theft is considered a Grand Theft only if the value exceeds $950, anything below is taken as Petty Theft. The only exception comes if an automobile or a firearm is involved.
How is the value of the property determined?
The only sure disparity between a grand and Petty Theft is the value of the property in question. However, that should not trouble you. Prosecutors use a strategy called “fair market value” to measure the property value. Fair market value is the currently highest possible price of the given property in an open market; in the same place that it was stolen. Sometimes the fair market value is very easy to determine for specific items with fixed prices. For instance, if you are accused of stealing a jacket whose value was well outlined at $300, then the fair market doesn’t apply here. It is, however, not obvious in some situations. For example, if you stole jewelry from a person’s home, and it was probably a hereditary gem bought centuries ago, determining the value is a hard task for the prosecution.
Can charge reductions and diversion programs help me to keep Petty Theft from my criminal record?
Yes, but there are conditions that must be met:
- This must be your first Petty Theft conviction and generally your first Theft offense
- The property or service in question must be valued below $50.
If you meet all these conditions, then the charges can be dropped down to an infraction, and hence, the maximum penalty you can get is a fine not exceeding $250. Additionally, if you are a first Theft offender and the items in question exceed $50 but are less than $950, then you still qualify for a diversion program. First-time offenders can also opt for an informal diversion. This is a deal that tends to solve the whole problem outside the court. Once you succeed in any of these options, then you can be sure that your criminal record is clean as well. However, there are some conditions that must be met, including:
- Fully repay the stolen amount using the current market rate
- Complete a few hours of community service as agreed in the court
- Attend anti-Theft classes
Find an Los Angeles Criminal Attorney Near Me
Petty Theft is one of the least serious forms of Theft in terms of penalties and value of the items involved. Owing to this simplicity, arguing the case becomes a hurdle for inexperienced attorneys, and if one is not careful, this offense can lead you to jail, along with a criminal record containing a Petty Theft conviction. What you need to do when facing Petty Theft charges is to hire an attorney who is experienced in Theft laws.
Our attorneys at The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney will provide legal counsel and representation if you are facing Petty Theft charges in Los Angeles. However, we need first to evaluate your case as soon as possible, so call us at 310-564-2605 today!