Defining Theft Under California Law
The California theft statute defines theft as the intentional and unlawful taking of property. In order for a theft to occur, the offender must have an intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property. (Cal. Penal 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 theft-related offenses, 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 a bank account in order to obtain property or services
- failing to return library materials
- misappropriating property that has been entrusted to the offender
- knowingly defrauding another of property, or
- 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 that is the subject of the theft. 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. Penal 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. Petty theft generally is a misdemeanor offense.
If a petty theft charge is the result of a shoplifting offense, and the offender has no prior criminal record, or if the value of the stolen property is $950 or less, the offense is typically a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor conviction for petty theft in California carries a sentence of imprisonment in the county jail of no more than six months or a fine of no more than $1,000. (Cal. Penal 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.
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. A misdemeanor theft offense also can become a felony offense if the offender has a prior conviction for theft or a theft-related offense. (Cal. Penal Code §487.)
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. Penal 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.
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 petty theft, grand theft, auto theft, etc.) where time was served. (Cal. Penal 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 occured, the defendant had a good-faith belief that he or she owned the property or was legally entitled to possess it.