Theft Crimes

Theft is a severe offense in Los Angeles, California, that could land you in jail or prison for several years. However, many people may not know this until they find themselves facing theft charges. If you are charged with such a crime, you will need the services of an experienced theft attorney to argue your case, and LA Criminal Defense Attorney won’t let you down if you have charges in Los Angeles. Our defense attorneys are conversant with all the California theft laws. Thus, they can effectively handle any theft offense. Read further to have better insights on theft crimes in LA and California in general.

The General Overview of Theft Crimes in California

Theft involves taking money or property that does not belong to you without the owner’s consent. The primary charges of theft can either be infractions or misdemeanors. This depends on the specific elements surrounding the crime, and mainly, the value of the alleged stolen property. The amount of money or the value of property in question further leads us to the two broad categories of theft: petty theft and grand theft. Therefore, any crime that is alleged to be theft is usually punished depending on whether it is petty theft or grand theft.

Petty Theft in California

This offense is described as the unlawful possession of another person’s property whose value doesn’t exceed $950 according to Penal Codes 484a and 488. Petty theft is further classified based on the way it was accomplished and the elements of the crime. Thus, there is petty theft by larceny, petty theft by trick, petty theft by embezzlement, and petty theft by trick.

Theft by larceny

This theft involves physically taking property or money that does not belong to you. Most petty theft convictions revolve around this form of theft. For you to be charged with theft by larceny, the prosecution must prove that:

  • You, indeed, owned property that belongs to someone else
  • You took possession of the property without permission from the owner
  • You took the property with the intention of permanently denying the owner the right to its ownership, and therefore, depriving them the enjoyment and a large share of the value of the property
  • You shifted the property, even if for a slight distance and owned it for a certain period

Theft by trick

When you use deception to acquire property or money, that is considered theft by trick. To be convicted of this crime in California, the prosecutor must prove that:

  • You had known that the property was owned by another person, but you still obtained it
  • The owner of the property agreed to transfer its possession to you because of your trick
  • You acquired the property with the purpose of depriving the owner of it permanently or to keep it away from the owner so that he/she is denied a significant enjoyment or share of the value of the property
  • You moved and kept the property for some time
  • The property owner had no intention of transferring ownership rights to you

Theft by embezzlement

This offense is described as appropriating property that is entrusted to you using fraud. The prosecution must show that:

  1. The property owner assigned the property to you since he/she trusted you
  2. You deceitfully used the property for your advantage
  3. You used the property with the intention of denying the owner all their privileges regarding the ownership of the property

Theft by pretense/fraud

When you lie to someone or use fraudulent representation by convincing them to give you their property, then you would be guilty of theft by pretense. However, the court will only find you guilty if it’s able to prove the following;

  1. That you deliberately told a lie or used fraudulent representation to obtain property from the owner
  2. You deceived the property owner with the intention of persuading him/her to allow you to assume the possession of the property
  3. The owner of the property permitted you ownership because she/he trusted your pretense

Petty Theft with a Prior Sentence (Proposition 47 and Penal Code 666)

Since November 2017, many theft crimes were reduced from infractions to misdemeanors as set out by Proposition 46. Previously, under California law, offenders who committed at least three petty theft crimes and were convicted for any other theft-related offense would be accused of a wobbler crime. However, if they committed another petty theft offense, they were charged with an infraction.

This proposition puts a limit to some people who are charged with a wobbler in such situations. Thus, a wobbler crime only applies to defendants who had committed not more than one prior petty theft and were imprisoned. Also, the defendant has to have previously been sentenced for a serious offense as established under the law, a sex offense, or embezzlement. Defendants who do not fall in this category will be charged with misdemeanors.

Additionally, Penal Code 666 states that if at any point you were found guilty and convicted of any theft crime, your penalties in the present petty theft sentencing are increased. The previous convictions that led to additional punishments include grand theft auto, robbery, burglary, carjacking, petty theft, grand theft, and receiving stolen assets.

The penalty for petty theft with prior increases from six months to a one-year jail term if charged as a misdemeanor. If it is a felony, you will be imprisoned for sixteen months, two or three years in state prison.

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Grand Theft in California

According to Penal Code 487, grand theft is the act of unlawfully taking property whose value exceeds $950 from another person. A grand theft sentence has negative personal and professional consequences. Under the laws of California, one is charged with grand theft even if she/he commits a mistake that appears minor at that time, as long as it is established later that the property value exceeded $950. Just like petty theft, grand theft can also be categorized as:

  • Grand theft by larceny
  • Grand theft by embezzlement
  • Grand theft by pretense
  • Grand theft by trick

Other types include grand theft auto and grand theft of a firearm. Grand theft auto is theft of a vehicle whose value exceeds $950 while grand theft of a firearm is theft of any firearm regardless of the value. Grand theft of a firearm becomes a felony if the gun is worth more than $950, and a misdemeanor if it is less than $950.

If you are charged with grand theft by pretense, the prosecution must present specific evidence to prove that you committed the offense. This may include

  • Fabricated writing which is normally a false document
  • Any writing that allows pretense and is signed by the defendant
  • A testimony of not less than two witnesses

The above only applies to petty theft and grand theft by pretense cases because it is quite easy for a person to take part in a business deal where s/he hands over the property to a second party then later change his/her mind and allege that the second party used pretense to acquire the property.

The law also provides the possibility of being charged with grand theft if you took property amounting to $950 or less, but the following is true:

  • If the property was a firearm
  • The property comprised of particular animals like sheep and horses
  • If the property was a vehicle
  • You took the property off the owner, for instance, their body, a container they were carrying, or their clothing

Related Crimes to Grand and Petty Theft

Burglary, robbery, mail theft, and shoplifting are the most common crimes related to petty and grand theft

Burglary (Penal Code 459)

This is entering a building structure or a locked vehicle with the intention of committing a crime or theft. Just by making your way into a structure with a felonious intent qualifies to be burglary, even if the intended theft or felony was not successful.

A burglary crime is divided into two, namely first-degree and second-degree burglary. A person is charged with first-degree burglary when he/she enters a home or a residence, while second-degree burglary is when one enters any other type of structure like a business premise or a store with the above-mentioned intentions as described under Penal Code 460.

In California, a first-degree burglary offense is a felony. It is, therefore, punishable by two, four, or six years’ sentence in state prison. Second-degree burglary, on the other hand, can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. As a felony, its penalty is either sixteen months, two, or three years of imprisonment.

To fight a burglary charge, a criminal defense attorney can argue that:

  • The defendant did not have any intention of committing a felony when he/she entered a premise
  • The property the defendant stole or was intending to steal was rightfully his/hers, or the defendant believed he/she had a legal claim to it
  • It was a mistaken identity and that the defendant did not enter the premise in question

Robbery (Penal Code 211)

This is taking another person’s property or one that is in their immediate presence, against their will, by using force or frightening them. It is always charged as a misdemeanor under the laws of the state of California. California law also classifies the following situations as robbery;

  • When you break into a residence when the owners are present then threaten to harm them before stealing their property physically
  • When you threaten to physically harm the owner of the property after being caught red-handed stealing property, to evade charges
  • When you drug someone, then steal from them in their unconscious state

Robbery is also categorized into first and second-degree according to Penal Code 213. It is a first-degree if you rob a passenger or a driver on a taxi, a bus, or a passageway, or if you rob an inhabited building or someone who is just from using an ATM and is still around the place (Penal Code 212.5). Second-degree robbery is any robbery that does not meet the definition of first-degree robbery.

Robbery penalties depend on the type of robbery you are charged with. For a first-degree robbery, convicts are sentenced for a period of three to nine years in state prison. The penalty for second-degree robbery is either two, three, or five years’ imprisonment in state prison.

A criminal defense attorney can help the defendant fight robbery charges by arguing some legal defenses. They can argue that:

  • The defendant did not use force or intimidation when taking the property.
  • The defendant believed that the property legally belonged to him/her
  • The accusations against the defendant are false, or it is was a mistaken identity case

In other instances, the attorney can use the entrapment defense where they argue that someone pushed the defendant into carrying out the robbery against his/her will. Also, the attorney can argue that the defendant was under duress during the time of the robbery.

As you can see, robbery and burglary differ on the basis of the use of force, intimidation, or threats. That is, unlike in a robbery case, a burglar doesn’t necessarily have to threaten someone, or even come close to them, as long as they entered an enclosed structure.

Shoplifting (Penal Code 495.5)

This is described under California law as an attempted entry into an open business premise during business hours to steal goods worth $950 and below. This crime is mostly charged as a misdemeanor. A shoplifting charge holds even if you did not succeed in stealing the property. Possible penalties for shoplifting include;

  • County jail sentence of not more six months,
  • A fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, or
  • Both.

You are exempted if you have a record of particular serious previous convictions such as a sex felony or a homicide. In this case, shoplifting is charged as a felony.

Note that the defendant can only be charged with either petty theft or shoplifting but not both. However, California shoplifting law is unclear because even people who successfully shoplift merchandise worth $950 are charged with petty theft rather than shoplifting.

Some of the defenses used by a defense attorney to fight a shoplifting charge include mistaken identity, police misconduct, and no stealing intention from the defendant.

Mail Theft {Penal Code 530.5 (e)}

You can be charged with a California mail theft offense when you knowingly take another person’s mail from a post office, a letter carrier, or a mailbox. This offense is different from petty and grand theft because it is difficult to establish the value of the mail stolen. It is always charged as a misdemeanor with a punishment of a one-year jail term.

Penalties for Petty and Grand Theft

Petty theft is charged as a misdemeanor offense. Its possible penalties include:

  • A sentence of six months or less in county jail,
  • A fine of not more than $1000, or
  • Both the sentence and fines, or
  • Summary probation in accordance with Penal Code 490.

On the other hand, a grand theft crime is considered a wobbler offense. It can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. Its penalty as a misdemeanor doesn’t exceed a one year sentence in county jail. If it is a felony, it is punishable by sixteen months, two or three years’ imprisonment.

Grand Theft Penalty Enhancement (Penal Code 12022.6)

If you are charged with grand theft as a felony, a judge may increase your sentence. This happens mainly if the value of the property you allegedly stole is exceptionally high. The possible sentence enhancements are as follows:

  • An additional one year if the value of the property exceeds $65,000
  • An additional two years if the value of the property exceeds $200,000
  • An additional three years if the property value exceeds $1,300,000
  • An additional four years if the property value exceeds $3,200, 000

The court must know the property value before providing a sentence enhancement. This is determined by adding up the value of all the stolen property with the guidance of a common plan.

The General Legal Defenses for a Petty and A Grand Theft Offense

When charged with petty or grand theft, there are various legal defenses that an experienced criminal attorney can use for a judge to let you off the hook. They include:

Not having any intention to steal the property

A judge cannot convict you of petty theft if you had no intention of stealing according to CALCRIM 1800. If your attorney can convince the jury that you were absent-minded or you forgot to pay for the property, you could be proved innocent.

You believed the property you were taking belonged to you

This defense will apply if the stolen item legally belonged to you or you believe it was yours. If your attorney is capable of proving this, your charges may be dismissed.

The owner of the property permitted you to take it

If the property owner had allowed you to take his/her property, then there is no case of petty theft. This is because a person who consented to hand you their property or money cannot abruptly change their mind once you have taken it. However, the use of that property must be within the limit of the agreement. For example, if your colleague lends you his/her phone to use it for calling customers at the office, it doesn’t mean you can use the phone to call your friends and relatives outside the office.

It was a false accusation

It is possible that you can be falsely accused or framed for theft. This is a common legal defense, and if your attorney convinces the court that you were falsely accused due to mistaken identity, the judge or jury may find you innocent.

Legal defenses for grand theft are similar to those of petty theft. An experienced defense criminal attorney will argue these defenses depending on whether you are facing first-degree or second-degree grand theft charges.

How is the Value of Property Determined?

For the judge to convict you of petty or grand theft, the prosecutor must determine the property value. The courts use the fair market value of the given property (CALCRIM 1801) to determine this value. Fair market value would be the highest cost of the property if it was sold at an open market during that time. In some cases, the fair market value of a property is pre-determined. For example, if you are accused of stealing a pair of shoes with a price tag of $1000, you will be charged with grand theft.

Can a California Petty Theft Charge Be Reduced?

California law provides the possibility of reducing petty theft penalties. However, this is only possible if that is your first petty theft case, you have no record of other theft offenses, and the stolen property value doesn’t exceed fifty dollars. If your charges were to be reduced, you would be fined an amount not exceeding $250 in accordance with Penal Code 490.1.

If that is your first petty theft case, but the value of the property you took exceeds fifty dollars, your defense attorney may convince the jury to have you join a diversion program. This deal may help keep a petty theft sentence off your criminal record. Once in a diversion program, your petty theft charges will be dropped, and in exchange, you will have to do the following;

  • Join anti-theft classes
  • Recover the value of the property you stole
  • Do community service for all the hours you agreed with the court