California law defines theft as any activity that entails taking property unlawfully to deprive the owner temporarily or permanently of their property ownership. Theft could involve automobiles, property, fraud, services, and each is punishable as per state law guidelines. The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm has many years of experience representing clients who have been charged with various forms of theft crimes, and we are ready to represent you if you are charged with a theft crime in Los Angeles. The following are the different types of theft crimes we handle.

1. California's Petty Theft Law (Penal Code 484 PC)

The law defines petty theft as the deliberate taking of personal property that belongs to another party without their explicit consent. An action qualifies as petty theft under the following circumstances:

  • The stolen property's value is below $950
  • The stolen item(s) is not taken directly from the owner, e.g., from their bag
  • The stolen property does not belong to select categories that have particular codes, e.g., vehicles, guns, horses, aquacultural products below $250, etc.

Petty theft comes in various forms:

  1. Theft by Larceny

Most of the petty theft crimes fall under theft by larceny provided the act to possess someone else's property unlawfully did not involve violence. A prosecutor must prove that:

  • The stolen item indeed belonged to someone else, that is, there is proven ownership before being taken
  • The property was taken without the explicit consent of its rightful owner
  • You moved the stolen item from one point and retained it for some amount of time, even though somewhat briefly
  • The intention of taking the property was to dispossess its rightful owner for a long time or permanently, and the owner would lose a significant part of its value or usage
  1. Theft by Embezzlement

As per California Penal Codes §§ 484 and 503, theft by fraud occurs when someone who is trusted with certain assets, e.g., company money, steals from it using secretive means. For a prosecutor to prove an embezzlement charge, the crime must meet these requirements:

  • An owner has entrusted the stolen property to the defendant perhaps through a working relationship
  • The property owner gave access to the item (e.g., company accounts) because they trusted the defendant
  • The defendant acted in bad faith defrauding the owner and using the stolen property to their benefit
  • Taking the item or a portion of it was aimed at denying the owner access and use of the said item for a specific duration or permanently
  1. Theft by False Pretense

This type of petty theft happens when a defendant uses false methods to persuade the owner of the targeted property to relinquish its ownership to them. It could be a title deed of land or home or a package addressed to someone else. For a person to be convicted of theft by false pretense, their action must meet these requirements:

  • The defendant purposefully deceived a property owner by presenting false or fraudulent documents such as a fake ID
  • The property owner or their representative allowed you to take the item and assume ownership based on the pretense
  • The defendant wanted to convince the owner or another representative to let them take the said item permanently
  1. Theft by Trick

This kind of petty theft is similar to theft by false pretense, but they differ in that stealing under pretenses usually involves turning over ownership and possession. Theft by trick, on the other hand, consists of the owner relinquishing possession of the property in question without handing over the title deed. A great example of this crime is when neighbors borrow items from each other then refuses to return it even after being asked to do so.

What are the Penalties for Petty Theft Crimes?

Petty theft crimes typically fall under misdemeanors, and you may get:

  • A summary probation
  • Spend up to six months in county jail
  • Pay fines of up to $1000 (optional depending on the severity of the crime)

According to California Penal Section 490.1, stealing property under $50 or less can be pleaded down to an infraction against the law. Nonetheless, this option is only applicable to defendants without previous theft charges or other theft-related criminal activity.

Penalties for Multiple Petty Theft Crimes

If you are facing other theft charges – petty or grand larceny – where the total monetary value supersedes the statutory minimum, the legal consequences are dire as compared to first-time offenders. Under PC 12022.6(a), you could be facing an extended prison sentence, and if the cumulative loss ranges from $50,000 and $2.5 million, the judge may impose one to four years in prison.

How Can I Defend Petty Theft Charges?

While petty theft crimes are generally classified under misdemeanors, facing these charges cannot be taken lightly, especially since jail is a possibility. The thought of going to jail for even a few weeks is scary, and it could adversely impact your livelihood. More so, doing time comes with a stigma that makes hiring managers overlook resumes no matter how qualified such applicants are.

Finding housing may also pose a challenge as many landlords request for permission to do a background check before issuing a lease agreement. If you are facing charges for petty theft, The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm can challenge these in court by mounting the following defenses:

  • False accusations

One of the most plausible arguments is that the plaintiff is wrongly accusing you of taking ownership and possession of their property. For instance, it is possible to borrow equipment and then forget to return it. Our team has litigated numerous petty theft crimes, and we are keen to investigate the case painstakingly to identify an instance of falsehood that could exonerate you.

  • You had no intention to steal

Being caught with another person's item does not automatically mean you sought to steal it, and the prosecutor has the burden to prove that you had ill intentions in the first place. Failure to prove to the court without reasonable doubt means a jury should not convict you under PC 484.

  • You thought the item belonged to you

When someone takes another person's property under the assumption that it is their item, then such actions are not typically considered as theft. The onus is on your attorney to prove otherwise. For instance, mistakenly taking a purse that looks exactly like yours, you may have left on a park bench.

Expunging a Petty Theft Criminal Record

If none of the above defenses prevails in court, you will be convicted under any form of petty theft, and this goes to your criminal record. Even if you had no criminal history before this conviction, a petty theft charge is unseemly, so the next step is having it scrapped.

Expunging a criminal record means sealing arrest and conviction records. Hence, you will not be required by prospective employers and landlords to declare your criminal past. Once this legal process is done, these records cannot appear in future background checks, so you rest easy without fearing repercussions of criminal history.

California allows the expungement of most petty theft records as long as you have no priors of theft-related crimes or other grave crimes like murder or sex offenses. In this scenario, you would get prison time and no allowance to seal your criminal past.

If this petty theft charge is your first conviction, your attorney can have these records sealed to shield you from dire consequences downstream. You can take a free online survey that gauges a person's expungement eligibility test per their state.

While conditions for this provision vary from state to state, there are general measures you can take to bolster your chances of succeeding in this regard:

  • Pay all monetary fines given by the court
  • Finish your assigned probation
  • Complete all court-mandated programs such as AA classes
  • Avoid running into more legal trouble during rehabilitation and afterward

Remember, jurisdictions dangle the expungement offer to encourage wrongdoers to uphold the law and also to ensure the punishment is proportionate to the crime. Apart from petty theft, other crimes that may qualify for sealing records include indecent exposure, possession of controlled substances, grand theft, shoplifting, prostitution, and so on.

2. California's Grand Theft Law (Penal Code 487)

As mentioned previously, petty theft involves unlawfully taking possession of items worth $950 or less. In contrast, grand theft entails stealing items whose monetary value is more than $950. Another significant difference is that grand theft involves taking property directly from the owner, regardless of its value. For instance, grabbing something from the pockets of clothing they were wearing at the time.

Grand theft can either be charged as a misdemeanor or felony depending on the severity of the crime. For misdemeanor grand theft, California's sentencing guidelines stipulates going to County jail for one year. Felony charges of this nature come with a jail sentence of 16 months, two years, or even three years in state prison.

The elements of grand theft will depend on the particular crime, and the case must fulfill two major requirements for a prosecutor to convict you:

  • You indeed committed the crime
  • The value of the stolen item(s) was $950 or more

Common examples of grand theft entail taking jewelry, technology gadgets, collectibles and antiques, high art, a purse carrying $950 or more, and so on. Just like the case with petty theft, grand larceny is a wobbler, which means it can either be classified as misdemeanor and felony. The key determinants here are these circumstances:

  • The cumulative value of stolen the items the defendant allegedly stole
  • How the alleged theft was done including if violence was meted out or even a threat to harm the victims
  • Your criminal history and that of your accomplices (if any) particularly when you have been convicted for such criminal acts before

A prosecutor will evaluate these conditions when determining if to charge you with a misdemeanor or felony with the latter charge carrying more severe penalties under California law. If your case falls under misdemeanor crimes, the city attorney's office will take the lead while the district attorney's office usually handles felonies.

Defenses for Grand Larceny Charges

Whether charged with a misdemeanor or felony, there are various ways of fighting these grand larceny charges to have the case thrown out or at least have the least possible penalties.

  • Lack of intent to steal

The prosecutor has the burden to prove that you had premeditated to commit grand theft, for instance, taking a car or laptop. If there is no apparent intention of stealing the said item, the only recourse is dismissing the charges as they are baseless.

  • Permission from the property owner

The owner may have permitted you to use the item you allegedly stole which means you were using it lawfully. For instance, if you borrowed a car to travel out of town with friends, they cannot report it stolen, and if they do, your attorney will have the charges thrown out.

Other defenses when fighting grand larceny include mistaking the item for a similar property that belongs to you, or false accusations by someone with malicious intent.

Penalties for Grand Theft

If the charges leveled against you stick, the prosecutor will be looking to inflict penalties under California's legal guidelines. The severity of accompanying penalties and assessments are dependent upon your case and whether you have a criminal past or not.

Misdemeanor Grand theft:

  • Probation is not mandatory, so it is upon the judge's discretion.
  • Up to one year in County jail

Felony Grand theft:

  • A probationary sentence upon the judge's discretion
  • Up to one year in County jail or up to 16 months
  • Penal Code 1170(h)(1) requires up to 2 years or 3 years in state prison

Please note, the above charges are subject to increment if you have been involved in previous arrests and convictions for theft-related crimes. More so, if the statutory minimum of the stolen property goes beyond $50,000 to $2.5 million, the judge could extend your prison sentence by one to four years.

When the stakes are this high, it is expedient to have an experienced legal mind in your corner to plead down the charges as much as possible.

3. Shoplifting Crime (Penal Code 459.5)

Shoplifting is a tricky crime as the law doesn't require one to walk away with an item for them to be prosecuted. The California Penal Code 459.5 stipulates the intention to steal is justifiable cause for charging you even if your unlawful action was stopped by a Loss Prevention Agent. To this end, this code defines shoplifting as going inside a commercial enterprise during business hours with the intent to steal while the value of the target property does not surpass $950. The same conditions apply to a commercial burglary.

The Penal Code section 459.5 also prohibits charging alleged shoplifters with theft or burglary on the same business enterprise. Nonetheless, the amendments passed under Proposition 47 do not apply to these cases:

You were previously convicted of grave or violent crimes such as rape, possessing a bomb, homicide, etc.

You are a registered sex offender in California or other jurisdiction under P.C. 290(c) which mandates such people to register with police records.

Proposition 47 and its Implication on Theft Cases

In November 2014, Proposition 47 was passed into law directing that when a person is charged with crimes that are not serious or violent, the offense is a misdemeanor. For this arrangement to work, the alleged perpetrator must not have other convictions for sex-related crimes and homicide; which are then elevated to a felony. Before this legislature, suspected shoplifters who were caught during business hours and stole or attempted to take goods valued at $950 or below were charged with felony commercial burglary.

Reactions to this legislature were a mixed bag. Some people heralded it for saving non-violent offenders from lengthy prison sentences while other fractions now blame it for the spike in shoplifting incidences, the Public Policy Institute of California found. The president of the California Retailers Association lamented that structured theft rings are taking full advantage of this amendment to commit more grand theft, which constitutes shoplifting cases.

Data by a Stanford University's Justice Advocacy project surmised there was a 13,000 decline of the state's prison population, which would help save $150 million in the first fiscal year. As the government scrambles to make savings, retailers are worried about California's moniker as the "shoplifter’s paradise" will only exacerbate over time.

Penalties for Shoplifting

How the penalties and assessments are meted out largely depends on the influencing factors of these current charges and your criminal past, if applicable. You can expect the following penalties for shoplifting:

  • A maximum of 180 days in County jail
  • Serve informal probation of utmost three years
  • Pay monetary fines of up to $1000
  • Other requirements as per the judge's discretion
  • Noncitizen could face a host of immigration issues from immigration court

The combination of these penalties and their respective degrees can vary, and this is where hiring an astute legal counsel makes a significant difference. You could go from potentially paying huge fees and serving the maximum sentence to having the fees waived and serving the least jail term. 

How Can I Fight Misdemeanor Shoplifting Charges?

Even if Proposition 47 has improved things considerably, facing misdemeanor shoplifting charges is not ideal, so you need a qualified attorney to represent you. Bear in mind that every criminal conviction – however presumably harmless – can wreak havoc on your life down the line.

  • Insufficient or circumstantial evidence

Convicting you under Penal Code § 459.5 calls for tabling adequate proof of the said crime and its elements. Your defense attorney will challenge whatever evidence is presented in court, including CCTV footage that could have been compromised to paint you in a bad light.

  • Lack of intent

When it comes to theft and related crimes, the prosecuting attorney usually has the burden to prove intent to do an unlawful activity such as knowing the item was therein. Walking out with an item without paying for it, by mistake, is not proof of intent as we could argue you were distracted and hence forgot to stop by the cash register. Without the most critical aspect of shoplifting, the charges won't hold, and the only recourse is to let you go.

  • Entrapment by law enforcement officers

This line of defense would claim the officers persuaded you to shoplift against your will, but this only works if the thought or discussion of said crime started from the officers, not the alleged perpetrator.

4. Burglary (PC Section 458-464)

This law covers crimes that involve the unlawful entry into a range of properties with the explicit intent to steal something. The intruder may crack a window open, extend their arm to reach the inside of a vehicle, or any other evidence of forceful entry into a residential or commercial unit. A burglary can be done in these places as determined by the respective codes:

  • Section 18075.55 of the Health and Safety Code – this covers a house, shop, mill, room, stable, tent, barn, vessel, floating home, etc.
  • Section 635 of the Vehicle Code – this covers a trailer coach, sealed or locked cargo container, railroad car, etc.
  • Section 243 of the Vehicle Code –  for example, entering an unoccupied camper
  • Section 21012 of the Public Utilities Code – this law covers an aircraft with doors locked
  • The Harbors and Navigation Code – this law covers a vacant home or vessel

What are the Possible Defenses for a Burglary Charge?

  • Lack of enough evidence

The prosecutor has a burden to unearth sufficient proof that you, and nobody else, did the alleged crime. A great defense lawyer will be keen to scrutinize any discovery, including how it was gathered and handled while in police custody.

  • No intention for crime

If there is no clear intent that you entered the premises to steal, the alleged action was not deliberate.

  • Reclaiming your property

If you trespassed into any of the above places to repossess items that already belonged to you, then the intent changes from crime to reclaiming. For instance, breaking into a home, you previously lived in to collect your things after separation. 

  • Mistaken identity

If the eyewitness did not see the perpetrator's face well or the surveillance footage is blurry, this could be a case of mistaken identity. Your lawyer will file a motion to have the case dismissed.

What are the Penalties for Burglary in California?

If you are found guilty of a burglary crime, you will face a maximum of 2, 4, or 6 years in state prison and pay fines of up to $10,000. Burglary is a strikes crime and therefore, the charges rack up with every subsequent strike. You will get an additional one year for every prior conviction of felony burglary that is of commercial or residential nature.

Find a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

Being charged with theft or theft-related crimes can yield a series of unwanted consequences on your professional and private life. The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm has litigated many theft crimes and helped clients to avoid jail sentences and other harsh punishments. We examine every individual case so we can mount the best possible defense for you. Reach us at 310-935-1675 to start benefiting from our expertise.