The penalties for most theft and larceny offenses are based on the value of the property stolen. State laws generally set a monetary cut-off point (a threshold) that distinguishes felonies from misdemeanors. But other factors can also make a theft a felony, regardless of the amount involved, such as the type of property stolen.
This article will discuss the common elements of felony theft and larceny offenses.
It's both. The term "larceny" is actually a type of theft. Larceny encompasses a group of crimes that involve the unlawful taking and carrying away of another's property. "Theft" is a broader term that applies to any crime that involves taking someone else's property with the intent to deprive the person of its possession.
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 covers larceny along with a wider range of crimes involving taking another's real or personal property through deception, embezzlement, trickery, and other means.
States vary widely in how they label and define theft and larceny crimes. Some have theft laws that apply to different kinds of theft, such as theft by unlawful taking, theft by trick, and theft by fraud. Others retain the more traditional terms of larceny, embezzlement, shoplifting, receiving stolen property, and theft. The recent trend among states has been to consolidate all the various types of thefts under one definition and crime and eliminate the various labels.
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 (more on penalties below).
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.
Any time someone commits theft or larceny, 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 $1,000 and $2,500—often referred to as the felony-theft threshold. (Some states have been slow to keep up with inflation, so stealing a $500 item can be a felony.) The offense level will depend on where you live. You could steal a $1,000 bike and commit a misdemeanor in one state and a felony in another.
In some situations, you can commit a felony theft even if the property you steal is valued under the state's felony-theft threshold. Many states have laws that categorize felonies based on the type of property stolen. For example, if you steal a car, firearm, or motorboat, this offense is usually considered felony theft regardless of the property's actual value.
In some states, repeat criminal offenders can face a felony theft charge even if the value of the property stolen doesn't exceed the felony limit. For example, some states have laws that bump up a misdemeanor-theft offense to a felony if that person has two or more prior theft convictions on record.
Another way misdemeanor theft(s) can become a felony is when the law allows prosecutors to file charges based on the value of all the thefts that person committed within a certain time period (like six months). For instance, a person who hits multiple stores in a few weeks to steal a bunch of prepaid phones could face felony charges even if each separate incident was technically a misdemeanor-level crime.
In addition to distinguishing between misdemeanor and felony thefts, some states assign different degrees to felony thefts.
For example, a state may have five levels of felony-theft offenses, with first-degree theft being the most serious and fifth-degree being the least serious. A first-degree theft may apply to thefts where the value of the stolen property is over $100,000, while fifth-degree felony theft might apply to a crime where the value is between $1,000 and $2,500. (Some states refer to the most serious theft level as aggravated theft.)
States may also punish categorical felonies by degree. For instance, a state may punish all automobile thefts as third-degree theft, 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 and a fine of $2,000 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, 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 or $2,000 or as high as $150,000 or more.
Restitution. On top of any fines, courts typically require a convicted person to pay restitution. Restitution is money paid to compensate the owner of the property for the loss.
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.
Felony-theft charges are very serious, and anyone facing them should always speak to a criminal defense attorney at the first possible opportunity. A conviction for felony theft can result not only in criminal penalties but also make it harder (if not impossible) to find get a job, housing, or a loan later on. Even people who do not have a criminal record and are confident that they did nothing wrong can have their lives ruined by being charged with felony theft. A local criminal defense attorney can guide you through the criminal justice process and defend your rights.