In Georgia, a person commits theft by taking or converting another’s property or services without authorization and with the intent of "depriving" the owner of their lawful possession, use, or right to the property or services.
This definition includes a broad range of conduct. A person can steal personal property (such as money, a TV, a vehicle, or stocks) or real property (like land or title to land). A "deprivation" can be permanent or temporary; it also includes disposing of property so it’s unlikely to be recovered (say by ditching a stolen bike in a dumpster). A person can also steal services (such as hotel accommodations, entertainment, or personal services) by deceiving another in an attempt to avoid paying for the services.
Georgia's theft laws also cover theft of trade secrets, mislaid or lost property, cargo theft, and leased property, among others. Below, we'll cover some of the general types of theft and their penalties. Consult an attorney or the Georgia Code (title 16, chapter 10) for more detailed information.
Theft in Georgia can occur by a taking or by deception, conversion, or extortion. A taking could be physically taking someone's wallet or electronically stealing money from an account. Theft by deception might involve tricking a vulnerable adult into wiring money to claim a fake prize. Conversion refers to a person who turns their lawful use of property into an unlawful use, such as an adult child using an elderly parent's money to take a lavish vacation instead of paying the parent's bills. In the context of theft by extortion, the offender unlawfully obtains the property by threat of bodily harm, defamation, or some type of legal consequence.
(Ga. Code §§ 16-8-1 and following (2020).)
In Georgia, offenses punishable by less than one year’s incarceration are considered misdemeanors. If the punishment is more than one year, the person faces a felony and up to a $100,000 fine. Georgia also allows judges the option to sentence certain felonies (those punishable by 10 years or less) as misdemeanors—these offenses are referred to as “wobblers.” (They wobble between misdemeanor and felony penalties.) (Ga. Code §§ 17-10-3, -5, -8 (2020).)
Georgia penalizes most of its theft offense by the type or value of the stolen property or services. Other theft offenses, like theft by extortion and shoplifting, carry separate penalties. We’ll discuss these penalties more below.
A person who steals property or services valued at $1,500 or less commits a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months’ jail time and a $1,000 fine. If an offender receives a sentence of six months or less, the judge may allow the offender to serve the sentence on weekends or during non-working hours.
If the person has two or more prior theft convictions, the misdemeanor penalty bumps up to a felony wobbler, which means the judge can choose to impose the misdemeanor (12-month) jail sentence or instead impose a felony (one- to five-year) prison sentence.
(Ga. Code §§ 16-8-12; 17-10-3, -8 (2020).)
Theft of property or services valued at more than $1,500 but less than $5,000 carries a prison sentence of one to five years. If the value goes over $5,000 but is less than $25,000, the defendant is looking at one to 10 years in prison. Both offenses are wobblers, meaning the judge can skip the felony penalty and sentence the defendant to a misdemeanor.
The following theft offenses carry felony penalties:
Theft by extortion (threats) also carries a felony sentence of one to 10 years in prison. Stealing trade secrets is a misdemeanor unless the trade secret's value is more than $100, at which point, the offense becomes a felony, punishable by one to five years’ incarceration.
Georgia’s recidivist sentencing enhancement imposes harsh penalties for repeat felony convictions. Upon a second or subsequent felony conviction, the offender must serve the maximum sentence allowed for that offense. An offender convicted of a fourth or subsequent felony is not eligible for parole. (Ga. Code § 17-10-7 (2020).)
Separate penalties apply to theft by shoplifting in Georgia.
Georgia's definition of shoplifting includes the typical scenario of concealing merchandise in a bag, under a coat, or by any other means, with the intent to steal it. Intent to steal does not require the act of stealing be completed. A person can be convicted of shoplifting even if they get caught with the merchandise before making it out of the store.
It's also shoplifting to swap out containers or price tags to pay a lower price for the item. Basically, any attempt to cheat the retailer out of the full retail price is considered shoplifting. Georgia also has penalties for the related offenses of altering or counterfeiting UPC labels and giving false information to obtain a refund.
A shoplifting offense will result in a misdemeanor when the value of the shoplifted property is $500 or less. Shoplifting merchandise worth more than $500 is a felony, punishable by one to ten years’ incarceration. A prosecutor can file felony charges for smaller shoplifting thefts that add up to $500 over a six-month period.
For repeat convictions, the law requires minimum fines and incarceration terms that cannot be suspended. A judge can also require repeat offenders to attend boot camp or undergo a psychological evaluation and treatment.
(Ga. Code §§ 16-8-14, -14.1, -17 (2020).)
Georgia allows any owner of stolen personal property (not just retail merchandise) to bring a civil action for damages against the offender.
Before filing the civil action in court, the property or store owner must send the offender a written demand and give the offender 30 days to pay the following amounts:
If the offender doesn't pay within 30 days, the property or store owner can seek the above damages, plus attorneys' fees and costs, in court. (Ga. Code § 51-10-6 (2020).)
If you're facing theft or shoplifting charges, contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Even seemingly minor misdemeanor charges can carry serious consequences. A criminal record of theft or shoplifting can make it difficult to find housing or employment, and repeat misdemeanors will bump up future charges to a felony.