California Petty Theft and Other Theft Laws

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California’s lawmakers define theft as the intentional and unlawful taking of property. In order for a theft to occur, the offender must intend to permanently deprive the owner of the property. (Cal. Pen. Code, § 484.)

Under California law, the crimes of forgery, embezzlement, identity theft, receiving stolen property, and robbery all fall under the umbrella of theft offenses. California law also defines several other specific offenses related to theft, such as:

  • failing to return rented or leased property
  • falsifying information in order to sell items to a pawnbroker
  • selling or otherwise unlawfully transferring a debit or credit card
  • using information from another person's debit or credit card or bank account in order to obtain property or services
  • failing to return library materials
  • misappropriating property that has been entrusted to the defendant
  • knowingly defrauding another of property, and
  • fraudulently obtaining credit.

Classification of Theft Offenses and Penalties in California

Like many states, California classifies theft offenses according to the value of the property taken. California law measures the value of stolen property by the reasonable and fair market value of the property. If the subject of the offense is services, the value of the services is determined according to the contract price for those services, or, if there is no contract price, according to the fair and reasonable market value of the services. (Cal. Pen. Code, § 484.)

Let’s take a closer look at how California law classifies and punishes different kinds of theft offenses.

Petty theft

California law defines petty theft as the theft of any property with a value of $950 or less. Most petty thefts are charged as misdemeanors. Petty theft is a misdemeanor if the theft is a result of the shoplifting offense and the offender has no prior criminal record, or if the value of the stolen property is $950 or less. A misdemeanor conviction for petty theft in California carries a sentence of up to six months in county jail, a fine of no more than $1,000, or both. (Cal. Pen. Code, § 490.) However, if the property has a value of $50 or less, the prosecutor can charge the offense as an infraction, so long as the offender has had no other theft-related conviction. Petty theft charged as an infraction is punishable by a fine of no more than $250.

Grand theft

The theft of property with a value of $950 or more constitutes grand theft under California law. Additionally, the theft of certain types of property -- such as firearms, livestock, and vehicles -- automatically qualifies as grand theft, regardless of the dollar value of the property. For example, theft of a gun is always grand theft, even if the gun is only worth $150. A misdemeanor theft offense also can become a felony offense if the offender has a prior conviction for theft or a related offense or a serious or violent felony, or if the offender is a registered sex offender. (Cal. Pen. Code, §§ 487, 666.)

In certain circumstances, the prosecutor can charge grand theft as a misdemeanor under California law. The punishment for grand theft prosecuted as a misdemeanor is imprisonment for no more than one year. In other cases, the prosecutor will charge grand theft as a felony, which is punishable by imprisonment for a term of at least one year in state prison. If the stolen property is a firearm, the offender may receive a felony conviction and a term of imprisonment in state prison for 16 months, two years, or three years, depending on the situation. (Cal. Pen. Code, § 489.) If the stolen property is a motor vehicle, the offender can be charged with grand theft auto, which is a felony.

Civil Penalties for Theft in California

In addition to criminal penalties, a person who commits a shoplifting offense in the state of California may be civilly liable to the store owner for the following amounts:

  • damages of at least $50 but not more than $500, and
  • the retail value of the merchandise if the property is not recovered in sellable condition.

For more information on civil penalties in shoplifting cases, see Demand Letter Mills in Shoplifting Cases.

Effect of Prior Theft Convictions in California

Under California law, an offender can face a felony conviction for petty theft if his or her criminal record includes three or more theft-related convictions (for carjacking, petty theft, grand theft, auto theft, theft or fraud against an elderly person, etc.) where time was served. (Cal. Pen. Code, § 666.)

Defenses to Theft Charges in California

There are a number of potential defenses to theft charges in California, particularly where the situation involves shoplifting or petty theft. One of the most common defense tactics is the argument that, at the time the offense occurred, the defendant had a good-faith belief that he or she owned the property or was legally entitled to possess it.

Obtaining Legal Assistance

If you are charged with or accused of committing petty or grand theft, you should talk to a California criminal defense attorney. Even a petty theft conviction can have serious consequences, and only a local criminal defense attorney will be able to give you meaningful advice that takes into account the charges, the law, and the local court system.

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