Petty Theft & Other Theft Laws

Learn about petty theft laws and other common theft laws in your state.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated May 19, 2022

The crime of theft runs the gamut in terms of the seriousness of potential charges and the severity of punishment that might be handed down. Stealing a $50 shirt from a clothing store would probably be charged as petty theft, while stealing $125,000 in jewelry will prompt a high-level felony theft charge.

This article provides information on the crime of petty theft, including possible defenses and factors that will affect the severity of a theft charge. At the end of this article, you'll find links to articles that give state-specific information on the crime of petty theft and penalties.

To learn about the laws in your state, jump ahead to the section on state-by-state theft laws.

What Is Petty Theft (Petty Larceny)?

Theft, also known as larceny, is the taking of someone else's property without consent and with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of that property. A person commits petty theft (sometimes referred to a misdemeanor theft) when the value of the item taken is less than a specified amount, such as $500. When items of merchandise are taken from a shop or store, the crime is commonly referred to as shoplifting. In some states, petty theft laws include shoplifting or retail thefts, while other states have separate shoplifting laws and penalties.

In a theft case (as in any criminal case), the prosecuting attorney must prove all elements of the offense that the accused person (the defendant) is charged with committing. Theft cases involve the following elements:

  • Ownership. The victim of the crime must have a "possessory interest" in the item taken. For example, if someone takes your jacket from your seat at the ballgame, the crime has been committed against you because you own the jacket. But if someone else's jacket was placed on your seat and then disappeared, the victim would be the jacket's owner, not you. The prosecution would have to produce the jacket's owner in court in order to successfully prosecute the accused thief.
  • Wrongful taking. A wrongful taking may occur through a physical movement or concealment of property, but it can also refer to wrongfully transferring funds or converting another's property to their own use (say by using an elderly parent's money to buy a sports car rather than pay the parent's bills).
  • Without consent. The owner must not have given consent to the taking. Consent that is obtained by deceit or trick is not effective. For example, a gas station owner who lets a motorist borrow his tools, relying on the promise that the motorist will bring them right back, has not given consent if the motorist intended all along to keep the tools.
  • Intent to permanently deprive. At the time the property is taken, the accused must have intended to permanently deprive the owner of their property. The deprivation doesn't need to have been completed; it's the intent that matters. Even taking property and dealing with it in a way that creates a substantial risk of permanent loss will suffice—for instance, by driving a car 900 miles and ditching it behind an abandoned house.

If the prosecution does not have evidence to support each of these elements, the crime should not be charged. And unless the judge or jury can conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the elements have been proven, the defendant is entitled to an acquittal.

Defenses to Theft

The statutory definition of theft is sometimes the first place a criminal defense attorney will look in considering possible defenses to a theft charge. As mentioned above, if any required element of a theft offense is missing or can't be proved, the charges may not stick (or may at least be reduced). So, a criminal defense attorney will look for possible defenses based on the circumstances of the case and the state's definition of theft. Some questions that might be raised include:

  • Did the offender actually take the property?
  • Did the offender believe the property was theirs at the time it was taken, or at least have a reasonable belief that they were entitled to take possession of the property?
  • Did the offender intend to eventually return the property?

Other common criminal defenses that might be relevant to a theft charge include entrapment and an alibi defense.

Punishment for Theft

Potential punishment (or sentencing) for a theft offense will depend on a number of factors related both to the offense and the defendant's criminal history. See the state-specific links below for details, but in general, after a theft conviction a judge may order one or more of the following at sentencing:

Most petty theft convictions will fall under a state's misdemeanor laws, which typically carry a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail (although some state's misdemeanors carry up to two or three-year jail sentences). Judges might consider alternatives to jail—such as probation, community service, or restitution—for a first-time offender or low-level offenses. Repeat offenders are more likely to be looking at jail time. And in many states, repeat petty theft offenses can enhance the penalty to a felony.

Juveniles and Theft

When a juvenile is accused of committing a theft offense, the case will very likely proceed through the juvenile justice system rather than traditional criminal court, and the juvenile will face a different set of penalties if there is a finding of delinquency. To learn more, check out "Exploration of the Juvenile Criminal Process" or speak to an attorney who has experience handling juvenile cases.

State-by-State Petty Theft Laws

For information on the petty theft threshold, classification of other theft offenses, and potential punishments in a specific state, check out the information and links below.

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