California Laws on Petty Theft, Grand Theft, and Shoplifting

The basics of California's laws and penalties for theft offenses.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated November 17, 2023

Theft and shoplifting offenses in California can quickly add up to a felony in California.

Theft Crimes in California

California's lawmakers define theft as stealing property by larceny, false pretense, or embezzlement, with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property.

Larceny is the intentional and unlawful taking and carrying away of another's property.

Theft by false pretenses is obtaining another's property by deception or false representations.

Embezzlement occurs when the accused's original possession of the property was lawful, but the accused later converts the property to an unlawful use.

Other theft-related offenses. California's theft law also includes other specific theft-related offenses, such as:

  • failing to return rented or leased property
  • falsifying information in order to sell items to a pawnbroker
  • unlawfully diverting funds for services, labor, or materials
  • defrauding a public housing program
  • selling or otherwise unlawfully transferring or using a debit or credit card, and
  • taking lost property without making reasonable efforts to find the owner.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 484 and following (2023).)

How California Classifies and Punishes Theft

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 services are stolen, 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 reasonable and going wages for the services. (Cal. Penal Code § 484 (2023).)

Penalties for Petty Theft

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, which carry a sentence of up to six months in county jail, a fine of no more than $1,000, or both. 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. (Cal. Penal Code § 490 (2023).)

Penalties for Petty Theft With a Prior Conviction ("Petty With a Prior")

A petty theft involving property stolen valued at $950 or less may be charged as a felony or misdemeanor (called a "wobbler"), if the offender has the following prior convictions: (1) at least one prior petty or theft-related conviction for which a term of imprisonment was served, and (2) a prior conviction for a serious or violent offense, for any registerable sex offense, or for embezzlement from a dependent adult or anyone over the age of 65. A misdemeanor can result in a sentence of up to one year in jail, whereas a felony can mean incarceration for 16 months, two years, or three years. (Cal. Penal Code § 666 (2023); Cal. Proposition 47 (2014).)

Penalties for Grand Theft

Grand theft includes theft of property with a value of more than $950 or theft of a firearm (any value). The penalty for stealing a firearm is a felony, punishable by a state prison term of 16 months, two years, or three years. In all other cases, grand theft is a wobbler and can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. A misdemeanor sentence results in up to 364 days in jail and a felony sentence results in prison time of 16 months, two years, or three years. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 487, 490.2 (2023).)

Looting Penalties

A person who commits grand theft or petty theft during a state of emergency, local emergency, or evacuation order is guilty of looting. Looting involving grand theft (stealing items valued over $950) constitutes a wobbler offense, with a misdemeanor penalty of up to 364 days in jail and a felony penalty of 16 months, two years, or three years' incarceration. When petty theft is involved (stealing items valued at $950 or less), the punishment is a misdemeanor with a six-month jail sentence. Both looting penalties carry a minimum jail sentence that can only be reduced when a judge decides the reduction is in the interest of justice. (Cal. Penal Code. § 463 (2023).)

Shoplifting Crimes in California

Shoplifting in California can result in both criminal and civil penalties.

Criminal Penalties for Shoplifting

Shoplifting in California occurs when a defendant enters a store, while that establishment is open, intending to steal property worth less than $950. The crime is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in the county jail. (All other entries of commercial establishments with the intent to steal are burglaries. For information on burglary laws in California, see Burglary and Home Invasions in California.) (Cal. Penal Code § 459.5 (2023).)

Civil Penalties for Shoplifting

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:

  • the retail value of the merchandise, if the property is not recovered in sellable condition
  • damages of at least $50 but not more than $500, and
  • costs of bringing the action.

If the shoplifter is a minor, the parents or legal guardians are responsible under this section. (Cal. Penal Code § 490.5 (2023).)

Defenses to Theft and Shoplifting 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. A defendant might also argue it's a case of mistaken identity and assert an alibi defense.

Another defense strategy is to seek a reduction of the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor by challenging the value of the property stolen. The prosecution might assert the property is worth $2,000 but the defense could argue the value is actually $800.

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. A criminal theft record can impact your ability in the future to get a job, housing, or a loan. A local criminal defense attorney can give you meaningful advice that takes into account the charges, the law, the immediate and future consequences, and the local court system.

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