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.
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.
Petty theft with a prior conviction ("petty with a prior")
In November 2014, California voters approved Proposition 47, which downgraded may offenses from felonies, or wobblers, to misdemeanors. (Prop 47 took effect on November 5, 2014.) Previously, people with at least three prior petty theft convictions, or a conviction for certain other theft-related crimes, who had been imprisoned as a result, could be charged with a wobbler if they committed a subsequent petty theft. These defendants could end up with felonies.
Prop 47 narrowed the number of people who could be charged with wobblers in these situations, making such a charge possible only if the defendant had at least one prior petty or theft-related conviction, and had been imprisoned as a result; and has a prior conviction for a serious or violent offense, for any registerable sex offense, or for embezzlement from a dependant adult or anyone over the age of 65. All other defendants must be charged with misdemeanors.
Proposition 47 added the specific crime of "shoplifting" to the Penal Code (previously, shoplifting was considered a type of petty theft, punished as described above). Effective November 5, 2014, a defendant who enters a store while that establishment is open, intending to steal property worth less than $950, is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 1 year in the county jail (all other entries of commercial establishments with the intent to steal are burglaries). However, if the defendant has prior serious or violent convictions or is a registered sex offender, the punishment is the same as for petty theft, described above.
For information on burglary laws in California, see Burglary and Home Invasions in California.
The theft of property with a value of $950 or more constitutes grand theft under California law, a felony, punishable by a term of imprisonment in state prison for 16 months, two years, or three years, depending on the situation. (Cal. Pen. Code, §§ 487, 666.)
Prior to Proposition 47, prosecutors could charge thefts of less than $950 as wobblers, making it possible for the defendant to end up with a felony, if the defendant had stolen certain types of property or had prior offenses. That option was removed by Proposition 47; all property worth less than $950 must be charged as misdemeanors. However, this rule does not apply to defendants who have committed certain severe crimes listed in the measure—including murder and certain sex and gun crimes.
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.
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.