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The term “theft” encompasses a group of crimes that all involve depriving someone else of his or her property. When most people think of theft they typically think of larceny, the taking of someone else's personal property. For example, stealing a bicycle from a bike rack or taking someone's purse as it hangs from the back of a chair are all considered larceny.
“Theft,” on the other hand, is a broader term that applies to any crime that involve taking someone else's property with the intent to deprive the person of its possession. For example, a theft occurs when a person writes a bad check to buy something from a store, as well as when an employee embezzled money from a company.
Though some states have theft laws that apply to different kinds of theft, others have larceny, embezzlement or similar laws that apply to specific kinds of theft.
Felony or Misdemeanor Theft?
Apart from how states categorize different forms of theft, states laws also address theft in terms of its severity. Criminal laws can be differentiated based on whether the crime they punish is considered a misdemeanor or a felony. A felony crime is more serious than a misdemeanor crime, and is punished with more significant penalties.
What makes a theft crime a felony instead of a misdemeanor is entirely dependent on the individual state's laws. Commonly, states define felonies either based on the value of the property stolen or on other factors involved in the crime. Felony theft is sometimes referred to as grand theft, though that description is not entirely accurate as some grand theft charges are misdemeanor offenses.
- Property value felonies. Any time someone commits a theft, that person deprives someone else of property. The stolen property's value is often what determines if the crime is a felony or misdemeanor. In order to be a felony theft, the value of the property must exceed a minimum amount established by state law, typically between $500 and $1,000. For example, if a state has a $600 felony theft limit, a person who steals a bicycle worth $400 has committed a misdemeanor. If another person in the same state steals a bicycle worth $700, the crime is a felony.
- Categorical felonies. In some situations you can commit a felony theft even if the property you steal is less than the state's felony minimum. Many states have laws which also categorize felonies based on the type of property stolen. For example, if you steal a car, firearm, or motorboat, this is usually considered felony theft regardless of the property's actual value.
- Criminal history felonies. In some states, repeat criminal offenders can also face a felony theft charge even if the value of the property stolen does not exceed the felony limit. For example, some states have laws which state that if a person has been convicted of two previous theft offenses and commits a third offense, the third offense is always charged as a felony. So, a person who commits a theft in a state with such laws will face felony charges for the third theft even if the stolen property is only worth a few dollars.
- Felony degrees. In addition to differentiating between misdemeanor and felony theft, states also differentiate between different degrees of felony theft. For example, a state may have five different levels of felony theft offenses, ranging from one to five, with 1st degree being the least serious and 5th degree being the most serious. A 1st degree felony theft may apply to the thefts were the property is between $1,000 and $5,000, while 5th degree felony theft might apply to a crime where the value is over $100,000. Also, states may punish categorical felonies as a specific degree felony. So, for example, all automobile thefts may be punished as a 3rd degree felony regardless of the value of the car.
The punishments associated with a felony theft conviction are more serious than misdemeanor penalties. Felonies are often defined as having a potential punishment of a year or more in prison or a fine of $1,000 or more. However, the actual penalties for a felony conviction can differ significantly depending on the state and circumstances of the case.
- Prison. Prison sentences for felony theft can last a number of years, though the length of the sentence differs significantly. For first-time offenders who are convicted of the lowest severity level of felony theft, the potential prison sentence can be anywhere from several months to two or three years, though a court may also choose not to impose any jail time. For repeat offenders or those convicted of the most serious felony theft offenses, prison sentences can range between several years to 20 years or more.
- Fines. Felony theft convictions also bring with them the possibility of significant fines. A single conviction can bring a fine as low as $1,000 dollars, or as high as $150,000 or more.
- Restitution. Apart from any fines, courts also typically require a convicted person to pay restitution. Restitution is money paid to compensate the owner of the property for the loss. Restitution must be paid in addition to any fines imposed.
- Probation. Someone convicted of felony theft may also be sentenced to probation in addition to, or separately from, fines or jail time. When a court sentences you to probation it requires you to comply with specific terms over a period of time, typically 12 months or more. Probation terms differ, but normally include such requirements as meeting regularly with a probation officer, maintaining a job, paying any required child-support, not associating with known criminals, and not breaking any more laws. If you violate any probation terms the court can lengthen the probation sentence or revoke it. If your probation is revoked a judge may force you to serve a jail sentence, force you to pay an addition fine, or impose additional penalties.
Speaking with an Attorney
Felony theft charges are very serious, and anyone facing them should always speak to an attorney at the first possible opportunity. Even people who do not have a criminal record and are confident that they did not do anything wrong can have their lives ruined by even being charged with a felony theft crime. A conviction for felony theft will irrevocably alter your life as you will not only face criminal penalties, but your ability to find a job. Only a local criminal defense attorney who is thoroughly knowledgeable about local felony theft laws and who has experience in dealing with area judges, prosecutors, and the local criminal justice system is able to provide you with quality legal advice.