Petty Theft in Montana: Penalties and Defense

Defining Theft Under Montana Law

In Montana, a person commits theft by "purposely or knowingly" taking property that belongs to another person, and doing so with the intent to deprive the owner of the property. More specifically, Montana criminal statutes say that theft occurs when a person:

  • obtains or exerts unauthorized control over another persons' property
  • obtains another's property by threat or deception
  • obtains control over stolen property, knowing it to be stolen
  • obtains or exerts unauthorized control over any public assistance or other benefits provided by a state or county through knowingly false representations or a fraudulent scheme
  • commits insurance fraud, misappropriates insurance premiums, or receives small business health insurance premium incentive or assistance payments when not entitled to such payments, or
  • commits embezzlement.

(§ 45-6-301.)

Montana laws also identify a number of distinct theft offenses, including:

  • theft of lost property (§ 45-6-302.)
  • theft of labor or services (§ 45-6-305.)
  • obtaining communication services with intent to defraud (§ 45-6-306.)
  • aiding the avoidance of telecommunication charges (§ 45-6-307.)
  • unauthorized use of motor vehicles (§ 45-6-308.)
  • failure to return rented or leased personal property (§ 45-6-309.)
  • unlawful use of a computer (§ 45-6-311.)
  • unauthorized acquisition or transfer of food stamps (§ 45-6-312.)
  • Medicaid fraud (§ 45-6-313.)
  • theft by disposal of stolen property (§ 45-6-314.)

Classification and Punishment of Theft Offenses in Montana

Unlike most states, Montana does not categorize its crimes as felonies and misdemeanors. Rather, Montana law defines each crime according to its elements, and then sets forth the punishment for the crime.

Montana classifies its theft offenses based mostly on the dollar value of the property involved (and on the nature of the property in a few circumstances). The only distinction made between felony and misdemeanor theft is the place in which the sentence of imprisonment for the crime is to be served. Generally, misdemeanor theft results in imprisonment in the county jail, while felony theft results in imprisonment in a state prison.

Petty Theft in Montana. A person convicted of theft of property not exceeding $1,500 in value will be ordered to pay a fine of no more than $1,500, or be imprisoned in the county jail for a term of no more than six months, or both. (Mont. Code Ann. § 45-6-301(8)(a).) This is the lowest level of theft under Montana law, sometimes referred to as petty theft.

Felony Theft in Montana. A person convicted of theft of property of $1,500 or more in value will be ordered to pay a fine of no more than $50,000, or be imprisoned in a state prison for a term of no more than 10 years, or both. This same punishment will be handed down after conviction for theft involving any amount of anhydrous ammonia intended for the purpose of manufacturing dangerous drugs (§ 45-6-301(8)(b)(i).) 

Additionally, a person convicted of the theft of “any commonly domesticated hoofed animal" in Montana -- such as horses, cattle, and sheep -- faces a fine of not less than $5,000 and not more than $50,000, or imprisonment for a term of no more than 10 years, or both. The court can defer the prison term, but must order the offender to perform 416 hours of community service during a 1-year period, in the offender's county of residence. (§ 45-6-301(8)(b)(ii).)

Furthermore, a person who commits theft by embezzling property valued at more than $10,000 will receive a sentence of imprisonment of one to 10 years, and may be ordered to pay a fine of no more than $50,000. In this case, the court may place the offender on probation, so long as her or she pays restitution under terms set by the court. (§ 45-6-301(8)(c).)

Civil Penalties for Theft

A person who shoplifts merchandise from a store, or the custodial parent or legal guardian of a minor who commits shoplifting, may be civilly liable to the store owner for the following:

  • actual damages, and
  • a penalty in the amount of $100 or the retail value of the goods up to $1,000, whichever is greater.

The store owner is entitled to these civil remedies whether or not the person has returned the goods undamaged. (Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-718.)

Effect of Prior Convictions on Theft Charges

A person convicted of a theft of property of no more than $1,500 in value is subject to the same punishment for the first and second offenses, which is a fine of no more than $1,500 or imprisonment in county jail for no more than six months, or both. However, a conviction for a third theft offense requires that the offender be incarcerated for at least 30 days to a maximum of six months, and pay a $1,500 fine. (Mont. Code Ann. § 45-6-301(8)(a).)

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