Los Angeles Petty Theft Defense Lawyer
Los Angeles Petty Theft Attorneys California Penal Code 484(a) PC and 488 PC
Overview of California Theft Laws (484 PC and 488 PC)
In California, Penal Code Sections 484 PC and 488 PC define theft (also known as larceny) as the intentional and unlawful taking and carrying away of the property of another. While this basic definition may seem simple, Penal Code Sections 484 PC and 488 PC create a complex framework of theft laws, which create different types and categories of theft. For example, theft by larceny, theft by false pretense, theft by trick, and theft by embezzlement have different elements, but all fall under the umbrella term of theft and can result in criminal liability under Penal Code Section 484 PC. Additionally, California law creates two different categories of theft: petty theft and grand theft, which carry severely different penalties.
Theft is a very serious crime in California. Depending on whether you are charged with petty theft or grand theft, a conviction could mean a $10,000 fine and spending the next 3 years in a California state prison. In addition to criminal penalties, even a petty theft conviction could result in serious immigration consequences if you are not a U.S. citizen, such as being denied citizenship or deportation.
Therefore, if you or a loved one has been charged with theft in Los Angeles, having an experienced and aggressive Los Angeles theft attorney fighting for you may mean the difference between freedom and prison. At Lewin Law Group, our team of theft attorneys have over 25 years of experience successfully defending clients from theft charges. If, after reading our comprehensive analysis of California theft laws below, you have questions or would like to speak to a Los Angeles theft attorney, call the attorneys at Lewin Law Group immediately for a FREE, CONFIDENTIAL consultation at (800) 458-1488. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help you.
California Petty Theft Laws Examined
In California, all thefts are characterized in one of two ways, either as petty theft or grand theft. Petty theft is the lesser crime and typically results in a misdemeanor charge. The more serious charge, grand theft, can lead to a felony charge. Whether you are charged with petty theft or grand theft depends on the value and type of property you are accused of stealing. Under Penal Code Section 487 PC, grand theft is any theft where the value of the property stolen exceeds $950. However, the Penal Code also takes into account the type of property stolen, which can affect how the offense is charged. For example, if the property stolen is a firearm, an automobile, or is taken from the person of another, the offense will be charged as grand theft, even if the property’s value is $950 or less.
Therefore, under Penal Code Sections 484(a) PC and 488 PC, petty theft is any theft where the value of the property stolen is $950 or less and the property is not of a special type that would automatically trigger grand theft charges.
How are California Petty Theft Charges Prosecuted (484(a) PC)?
In order to convict you of petty theft, the prosecution must establish each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The elements of petty theft will depend on which of the four types of theft crimes (theft by larceny, theft by false pretense, theft by trick, and theft by embezzlement) the prosecution alleges you to have committed.
Petty Theft by Larceny
The majority of petty theft cases are a result of “theft by larceny.” Most often, theft by larceny is attached to a shoplifting arrest. Under California Penal Code Section 484 PC, in order to convict you of theft by larceny, the prosecution must establish the following elements:
- You took possession of property owned by someone else;
- You took the property without the owner’s consent;
- At the time you took the property, you intended either
- to deprive the owner of it permanently,or
- to remove it from the owner’s possession for such a period of time that the owner would be deprived of a major portion of the value or enjoyment of the property;AND
- You moved the property, even a small distance, and kept it for any period of time, however brief.
Example: Channing and Jenna are high school sweethearts. A few days before the senior prom, Channing breaks up with Jenna. Extremely upset, Jenna wants to get back at Channing. One day, when Channing is not home, Jenna goes to his house to retrieve some her makeup and jewelry that she left in Channing’s room. Channing’s mom lets Jenna in and, while retrieving her things, Jenna sees Channing’s Ipod, worth $100, which she knows is filed with his favorite music. Jenna takes the ipod and sneaks it out of the house in a box with her belongings. Jenna does not intend to keep the Ipod forever, but just long enough for Channing to really miss it. Six months later, Channing and Jenna get back together. Regretting what she did, Jenna tries to sneak the Ipod back into his room, when Channing catches her and calls the police. Jenna is likely still liable for petty theft by larceny, despite lacking the intent to permanently deprive Channing of the Ipod, since she deprived Channing of the use and enjoyment of his Ipod for six months.
Note: Jenna is not liable for taking her makeup and jewelry from Channing’s room, since she was the rightful owner of that property. (See defenses below).
Compare with example: Same example as above, except that, instead of keeping Channing’s laptop for six months, Jenna intends to and does return the laptop the very next day, about 24 hours later. Jenna is not liable for petty theft left by larceny, since she did not intend to deprive Channing of the laptop for a long enough time to affect a major portion of his use or enjoyment of it.
Petty Theft by False Pretense (Penal Code Section 484 PC and 532 PC)
“Theft by false pretense” or theft by fraud can be another form of petty theft. Theft by “false pretense” occurs when the defendant uses a “false pretense” (intentionally misrepresenting a past or existing fact) to convince the property owner to give possession and title of the property to the defendant. Under California Penal Code Section 532 PC, in order to convict you of theft by false pretense, the prosecution must establish the following elements:
- You knowingly and intentionally deceived a property owner by false representation or pretense (in other words, telling a lie);
- You did so intending to persuade the owner to let you take possession and ownership of the property; AND
- The owner let you take possession and ownership of the property because they relied on your false representation or pretense.
Example: Anthony is an accountant. He convinces one of his wealthy clients, Richard, to give him his yacht by falsely convincing him that transferring the yacht’s title will result in a tax benefit to Richard. Anthony is likely guilty of petty theft by false pretense. The false pretense being the false representation that transferring possession and title of the yacht to Anthony would result in a tax benefit to Richard, which Anthony knew was not true.
Compare with Theft by Larceny
The main difference between theft by larceny and theft by false pretense is the element of consent. Unlike theft by larceny, in theft by false pretense, the owner of the property gives the defendant his/her consent to take the property, yet the defendant obtains that consent by fraud.
Petty Theft by Trick
“Theft by trick” can be another form of petty theft and is very similar to theft by false pretense. Yet, the main difference between the two is that, in theft by trick, the owner of the property only gives the defendant possession of the property, but does not transfer ownership or title.
Under California Penal Code Section 484 PC, in order to convict you of theft by trick, the prosecution must establish the following elements:
- You took possession of property owned by someone else;
- The property owner consented to your possession of the property because you used fraud or deceit;
- When you obtained the property, you intended either
- to deprive the owner of it permanently,or
- to remove it from the owner’s possession for such a period of time that the owner would be deprived of a major portion of the value or enjoyment of the property;
- You kept the property for any length of time; AND
- The owner did not intend to transfer ownership of the property to you.
Example: Brad convinces one of his friends, Jeff, to let him borrow his speakers worth $750 just for his birthday party that night by falsely promising to return it, although he does not intend to do so. Two days later, he changes his mind and returns the speakers to Jeff. Brad is likely guilty of petty theft by trick, since he obtained possession of Jeff’s speakers by misrepresenting his intent to return them. Despite having a change of heart and returning the speakers to Jeff, Brad is likely still guilty of theft by trick because at the time he took possession of the speakers, he intended to deprive Jeff of the speakers permanently. Once Brad fulfilled all the requirements of theft by trick, his subsequent repentance could not exonerate him.
Compare with Theft by False Pretense:
Note that, in the above example, Brad is not guilty of petty theft by false pretense because he never obtained title to the speakers, only possession.
Petty Theft by Embezzlement
“Theft by embezzlement” can be yet another form of petty theft. The main difference between theft by embezzlement and the other types of theft, discussed above, is that, in theft by embezzlement, the defendant begins with lawful possession of the property, but then fraudulently takes or uses that property for his/her own benefit.
Under California Penal Code Section 484 PC, in order to convict you of theft by embezzlement, the prosecution must establish the following elements:
- An owner of property entrusted his/her property to you;
- The property owner did so because he/she trusted you;
- You fraudulently converted/used that property for your own beneﬁt; AND
- When you converted/used the property, you intended to deprive the owner of the property or its use.
Example: Steve is the manager of a clothing store. At the end of the night, after counting all the money taken in that day, Steve notices that there is $500 more than there should be. Steve pockets the extra cash, figuring no one would notice.
Steve is likely guilty of petty theft by embezzlement. This is because, as manager, he was in a position of trust with regard to the clothing store and took the money for his own use, depriving the small business of the ability to use those funds.
Petty Theft v. Shoplifting (Penal Code Section 459.5 PC)
After the passage of Proposition 47 in November of 2014, “shoplifting” became a separate offense under Penal Code Section 459.5 PC. While closely related, the main difference between petty theft and shoplifting is that, in shoplifting, the defendant does not actually have to be successful in stealing the property, but only have had the intent to steal.
Under California Penal Code Section 459.5 PC, in order to convict you of shoplifting, the prosecution must establish the following elements:
- You entered a commercial establishment;
- During regular business hours; AND
- At the time you entered, you had the intent to commit a petty theft.
While having a separate shoplifting offense in the penal code causes some confusion, since most people who do shoplift are charged with PC 484(a) petty theft, all you need to know is that you cannot be charged with both shoplifting and petty theft for the same alleged incident and the punishments for both are almost identical.
Defenses to California Petty Theft
Successfully defending a petty theft charge will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of your case, as well as whether you have a first-rate California theft crimes attorney in your corner. At Lewin Law Group, our unshakable commitment to putting the interests of our clients first, coupled with our strong work ethic and commitment to leaving no stone unturned has resulted in countless acquittals, dismissals, and reduced charges for our clients. The following are but a few of the possible defenses our attorneys can utilize to win your case.
- You were falsely accused
- The owner of the property gave you their consent to take the property
- You lacked the intent to steal
- You believed that the property really belonged to you/you were the rightful owner of the property (AKA “the claim of right defense”)
Penalties for California Petty Theft
Under California law, a violation of Penal Code Section 484 PC, petty theft, is typically a misdemeanor, with a few exceptions.
If convicted of California petty theft, you face any or all of the following:
- Informal probation
- Up to 6 months in county jail
- A fine up to $1,000
Charge reduction for first-time offenders
Depending on the circumstances of your case, your attorney may be able to convince the prosecutor to reduce your misdemeanor petty theft charge to a minor infraction.
Under California Penal Code Section 490.1 PC, in order to even be eligible to have your misdemeanor petty theft charge reduced, the following must be established:
- This is the first time you’ve ever been charged with petty theft;
- You have no other theft or theft-related convictions on your record; AND
- The value of money, labor, real or personal property you are alleged to have stolen does not exceed $50.
Note: If your petty theft charge is reduced to an infraction, the maximum penalty you face is a $250 fine.
Diversion for first time offenders
Even if you are not eligible for a charge reduction to an infraction because the value of the property is greater than $50, you may still be able to complete a petty theft diversion program for first time offenders.
Diversion is a program that a skilled California theft attorney could obtain for you through negotiations with the prosecutor. The big advantage to diversion is that, if you complete all the terms of the program by the date set by the court, the petty theft charge is dismissed and, thus, kept off your record entirely.
While the specific terms of diversion vary by jurisdiction (county), generally, you will be required to complete the following:
- Pay restitution to the victim (the value of the property you allegedly stole);
- Perform a set amount of community service; AND/OR
- Attend one or more anti-theft classes
Petty Theft with a prior (Penal Code Section 666 PC)
Under certain circumstances, a petty theft charge can go from a relatively minor criminal offense to a possible felony conviction and serious prison time.
Under California Penal Code Section 666 PC, in order for your petty theft charge to become more serious and carry increased penalties, the prosecution must establish the following:
- You have been previously convicted of and served time for one of the following theft crimes: petty theft, grand theft, grand theft auto, burglary, carjacking, robbery, or felony receiving stolen property; AND your prior theft conviction was a result of stealing from an elderly person under California’s elder abuse law; OR
- You have been previously convicted of and served time for one of the following theft crimes: petty theft, grand theft, grand theft auto, burglary, carjacking, robbery, or felony receiving stolen property; AND EITHER:
- You have a prior sex crime conviction that required you to register as a sex offender under Penal Code Section 290 PC; OR
- You have a previous serious felony conviction under Penal Code 667(e)(2)(C), such as murder, attempted murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, forcible sex crimes, or sex crimes against children under 14.
If the prosecutor can prove you meet these requirements, your petty theft charge becomes a “wobbler”, which means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony. This decision is made by the prosecutor and is usually based on the specific facts of the case and your criminal history.
If convicted of California “petty theft with a prior”, you face the following:
- Up to 1 year of county jail (if charged as a misdemeanor); OR
- Up to 3 years in a California State Penitentiary (if charged as a felony)
Grand Theft (Penal Code Section 487(a) PC)
This charge applies to thefts were the property stolen is worth more than $950 or is of a special type that automatically triggers grand theft charges (see above). This crime is a felony.
If convicted of California felony grand theft, you face any or all of the following:
- Formal probation
- Up to 3 years in county jail
- A fine up to $10,000
Burglary (Penal Code Section 459 PC)
Burglary is also called “breaking and entering.” It refers to entering a home or building to commit a felony, such as robbery. In California, burglary is a three strikes offense.
For more information, please see our page on Burglary.
Grand Theft Auto (Penal Code Section 487(d)(1) PC)
Grand theft auto is a type of grand theft where the property stolen is an automobile, regardless of the value of the vehicle. Even if the vehicle stolen is worth $500, you will still be charged with grand theft, not petty theft.
Generally, grand theft auto is charged as a felony, but the prosecutor does have the discretion to charge it as a misdemeanor.
If convicted of felony grand theft auto, you could face up to 3 years in county jail. You could also face additional time, if the value of the car stolen is very high.
Carjacking (Penal Code Section 215 PC)
Carjacking is the violent theft of a vehicle. When someone uses force or scares a driver with implying violence, the accused person will face felony charges. Carjacking is a completely different crime than grand theft auto because it involves taking the car directly from another person.
Robbery (Penal Code Section 211 PC)
Probably the most common form of theft is robbery. This crime is charged when someone is accused of stealing property directly from a person, or from their immediate possession. For a robbery charge to be handed down, the alleged theft needs to be committed through force or a threat of force. This is a felony offense.
For more information, please see our page on Robbery.
Contact a Theft Crimes Attorney at Lewin Law Group
Our Los Angeles theft crimes defense attorneys have a long track record of success in theft cases. Without an experienced and aggressive attorney fighting for you, your conviction could result in the loss of your freedom and the destruction of your future. If you’ve been charged with theft in California, time is of the essence! Every minute you wait matters, so call Lewin Law Group immediately for a FREE, CONFIDENTIAL consultation at (888) 546-5394. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help you or your loved ones.
Penal Code 489 PC – Grand theft– punishment.
Penal Code 487 PC – Grand theft.
Penal Code 484 (a) PC and Penal Code 488 – Petty Theft.
Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) 1800 – Theft by Larceny (Pen. Code, § 484).
Based on People v. Davis, (1998) 19 Cal.4th 301, 307.
CALCRIM 1804 – Theft [including petty theft] by False Pretense (Pen. Code § 484).
CALCRIM 1805 – Theft [including petty theft] by trick (Pen. Code, § 484).
CALCRIM 1806 – Theft [including petty theft] by Embezzlement (Pen. Code, §§ 484, 503).
Penal Code 459.5 PC — Shoplifting [closely related offense to petty theft].
CALCRIM 1800 – [Petty] Theft by Larceny.
People v. Tufunga, (1999) 21 Cal.4th 935.
Penal Code 490 PC – Petty theft; punishment.
Penal Code 490.1 PC – Petty theft where value taken under $50; penalties.
Penal Code 666 PC – Petty theft with a prior.
Penal Code 489 PC – Grand theft; punishment.