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Petty Theft

Theft of small and easily concealable items is one of the most common theft crimes in California. In many cases, this involves shoplifting from a store. However, just because the crime is common, the penalties for a shoplifting conviction can be harsh, costing money, time, and possible future job opportunities.

Petty Theft Charges in California

When someone is caught for shoplifting, or stealing merchandise or products from a store, they are usually charged with the crime of theft or larceny. Under California Penal Code 484, theft is the taking of another person's property with the intent to permanently deprive them of their property. The charge is further divided based upon the value of the goods stolen.

  • If the property taken is valued at less than $950, the charge is petty theft.
  • If the property is valued at $950 or more, the charge would be grand theft.

What are the penalties for petty theft?

For a first time petty theft charge, if the property taken is valued at less than $50, the person may just face an infraction, with a fine of up to $250. However, based on the individual circumstances, even a low-value theft could be charged as a misdemeanor.

If the theft involves goods valued under $950, the crime is charged as a misdemeanor, which includes a mandatory fine of up to $1,000, and up to six months in prison for even a first-time offense.

When the value of the goods amounts to $950 or more, the charge is elevated to grand theft, and can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or felony. Grand theft in California includes California PC 487 (grand theft); PC 487(d)(1) (grand theft auto); PC 487(d)(2) (grand theft firearm).

Additionally, if caught shoplifting, an individual may not only face criminal penalties, but they may also be subject to civil penalties. If the shoplifter is a child, their parents could be liable for damages. Penalties include the retail value of the goods stolen and damages of up to $500.

Criminal Charges Based on the Type of Property Taken

In some cases, yes. Theft of a car or a gun is considered grand theft. Even if a firearm or a car is valued at less than $950, stealing these items will be charged as grand theft. Additionally, firearm theft and vehicle theft involve increased jail time.

In order to determine the value of the property taken, prosecutors will use the fair market value in the time and place the goods were taken. For example, if a purse has a $500 price tag when it is taken from a store, it will likely be valued at $500 even if the item was on sale at another store for $100.

Taking mail or packages sent through the mail may implicate federal theft charges. Theft or receipt of stolen mail is a federal offense. Criminal penalties for mail theft could result in up to 5 years in prison.

Criminal Charges Based on Where the Property is Taken From

Criminal charges may also depend on where the property is taken from. When property is taken from a store open to the public during normal hours, it may be considered shoplifting. However, if the property is taken from a private home or store after hours, it may be charged as burglary. Burglary is a much more serious crime, and it may not matter the value of the property taken. Burglary is a felony.

First-time Petty Theft or Shoplifting

Some petty theft and shoplifting cases are eligible for alternative programs other than trial. California provides for pretrial diversion programs for some first-time offenders for lower level crimes. These programs generally require an individual to repay the value of the goods stolen, complete approved community service, and abide by the terms of the diversion program. After completion of the alternative programs, the criminal charges can be dismissed. Talk to your attorney to see if you may be eligible for a pretrial diversion program to keep a petty theft charge off your record.

Multiple Petty Theft Offenses

If an individual has been convicted of prior theft charges, under California Penal Code 666, that person may face increased penalties. Depending on the factors of the prior criminal convictions, and the facts behind the charged offense, a prosecutor may charge the offense as a misdemeanor or a felony.

If charged with a misdemeanor petty theft with a prior conviction, jail time could increase to 1 year. If charged as a felony petty theft with a prior conviction, the individual could face a sentence of up to three years in jail.

Petty Theft Defenses

If the person arrested did not intend to steal the item, or if they intended to pay for the goods, this could be a defense to the shoplifting charge.

For many people arrested for shoplifting, they may have been reported or detained by private security while waiting for the police. After the police arrive, officers are required to abide by certain rules and constitutional requirements. If the police violate your rights during the arrest, this could result in getting the evidence in your case thrown out.

Although not a defense, for a first-time offender, or if the item taken had a relatively low value, the individual may qualify for a pretrial diversion program, which can result in the theft charges being totally dismissed.

Criminal charges for theft, even for petty theft, can permanently affect your criminal record. It is important to find an experienced criminal defense lawyer who can help you understand the charges you are facing, and any possible defenses to protect your rights and get you the best result.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

Lynn Gorelick has more than 30 years of criminal defense experience and understands the penalties involved with theft, petty theft, and shoplifting. She understands how to approach the individual facts of each case for the greatest chance of success, keeping her clients out of jail and maintaining a clean record. Whether you are arrested in Oakland, Richmond or anywhere else in Contra Costa or Alameda Counties, contact Lynn Gorelick understands you do not have to plead guilty just because you were arrested.

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