Theft Crimes

Theft crimes are treated more harshly in California than in many other states and can lead to not only jail/prison sentences and heavy fines but also to a permanent criminal record, a stained reputation, difficulty in finding future employment, and loss of professional licenses and of welfare benefits. If you have been accused of even the "least serious" of California theft crimes, it is truly a serious matter, and you should not settle for less than the best possible criminal defense lawyer.

At Pasadena Criminal Attorney, we have a deep understanding of the various statutes that address theft crimes in California, of the relevant local court processes in the Pasadena and Southern California Area, and of the best possible defense strategies that can help you win your case. We will unreservedly apply our full legal expertise in your best interests and fight tenaciously to secure the best possible outcome to your case. 

To learn more about California theft crimes defense or to avail yourself of a free legal consultation, contact us anytime 24/7 at 626-689-2277.

Basic Facts Concerning California Theft Crimes

Before we get into the details of each class of California theft crime, let us look briefly at the basic facts that apply to all, or at least, most of them.

First, a "theft" is defined under California law as the illegal taking of property that belongs to another person without the owner's prior knowledge and consent. The amount or type of property taken, the manner or means by which it was taken, and the place and circumstances under which it was taken will help define which type of theft crime it is and how severely it is to be punished.

Second, note that many theft crimes can be punished as either misdemeanors or felonies. Since 2014, with the passage of Prop 47, many theft crimes that were previously automatic felonies can now be misdemeanors, depending on the circumstances of the case and the defendant's past criminal history.  A skilled lawyer can even get the sentences of those convicted before Prop 47 reduced, many times, by getting their charge adjusted from felony to misdemeanor.

Third, note that it is possible to get theft crime convictions expunged from your criminal record, which can restore your ability to get state-issued licenses and increase your chances of finding gainful employment. However, employers may sometimes still (without saying so) decline to hire if they see even an expunged theft crime come up in a background check.  If possible, it is far better to avoid conviction altogether by either a diversionary grant or reduction to an infraction. In the case of many immigrants, a theft crime conviction can lead to denial of naturalization, of a green card, or even to deportation. 

Thus, it is obvious that, despite Prop 47 and the possibility of expungement down the road, relying on an experienced criminal defense attorney to fight the theft crime charge at trial is your best course of action.

Now we will look at 7 of the most common categories of theft crimes we at Pasadena Criminal Attorney frequently defend:

  1. Petty Theft (PC 484 & 488)

In California, the wrongful taking of property valued at $950 or less is labeled "petty theft" and is a misdemeanor charge. However, theft of a firearm and certain other objects can count as "grand theft" regardless of the value of the objects stolen, and a repeat petty theft offense can be charged as a felony under PC 666 (called "petty theft with a prior").

Note that, regardless of whether the property was stolen by physically taking it against the will of the owner ("by larceny") or by fraud or any other means, it can still count as petty theft. And a crime can be both petty theft based on the amount stolen and still fall under another theft crime category.

The maximum penalties for a misdemeanor petty theft offense is 6 months in county jail and a $1,000 fine. Possible defenses include: you had no intention of committing a theft but took the property by mistake, thinking it belonged to you; that the property actually did belong to you; that you had the owner's consent or believed yourself to have it; or that you are the victim of a false accusation, of mistaken identity, or of identity theft.

  1. Grand Theft (PC 487)

The stealing of property valued at above $950 is classified as "grand theft" in California and can be punished as either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the details of the case and the defendant's past criminal record.

If charged as a felony, grand theft is punishable by formal probation and 12 months in county jail OR 16 months to 3 years in jail. As a misdemeanor, grand theft is punishable by up to 12 months in jail.

If a firearm was stolen, the crime is called "grand theft firearm," which is a special subclass of grand theft. It is automatically grand theft (not petty) in this case, but it will be a misdemeanor if the firearm was valued at $950 or less but a felony if it was valued at over $950. Grand theft firearm is punishable by 16 months to 3 years in state prison (not county jail as with "ordinary" felony-level grand theft) and is a "strike" on your record under California's "Three Strikes" law.

If the property stolen was an automobile, it is the subclass of grand theft called "grand theft auto." In this case, it is nearly always grand theft since most automobiles are worth more than $950 (though it could be petty theft if the car was worth only $950 or less). Grand Theft Auto is punishable by 16 months to 3 years in county jail. However, if you only took and intended to keep the automobile for a very short period of time, it can count instead as "joyriding" under VC 10851 and be charged as a misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a maximum fine of $5,000.

Finally, note that even for "ordinary" grand theft (not necessarily of an auto or firearm), stealing excessive amounts of money will increase your sentence as follows:

  • If the value stolen is over $65,000, an extra year in jail/prison.
  • For theft of over $200,000, two extra years of incarceration.
  • For theft of over $1.3 million, three extra years behind bars.
  • For theft of over $3.2, four extra years.

The defense strategies against grand theft are the same as against petty theft. The only difference is the severity of the consequences to be avoided and the possibility of getting a charge reduction from grand to petty theft as part of a favorable plea agreement.

  1. Shoplifting (PC 459.5)

"Shoplifting" was not a distinct legal category in California until the passage of Prop 47 in 2014. Formerly, it was lumped in with burglary and frequently treated as a felony, but today, it is a misdemeanor in most cases.

To count as shoplifting and not burglary, the theft must have taken place within a place of business and during business hours. 

Charged as a misdemeanor, shoplifting is punishable by up to 6 months in county jail and a maximum fine of $1,000. When, however, the defendant already has "serious" priors, such as for murder or various sex crimes, shoplifting can be charged as a felony and be punished by 16 months to 3 years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

Defense strategies include:

  • Lack of intent: unless it can be proved you intended to commit a theft and actually formed that intent before entering the building, it does not count as shoplifting. Of course, it could still count as petty/grand theft if you formed an intent to steal after entering the building and then carried out that intent.
  • False accusations: It could be you were mistaken for the true thief or were even framed for the crime charged against you.
  • Police misconduct: If you were arrested without probable cause, interrogated without first being read your Miranda Rights, or your rights were otherwise violated, evidence against you can be thrown out of court and your case likely dismissed.
  1. Embezzlement (PC 503)

Whenever a person uses some form of fraud or misrepresentation of facts to steal or misappropriate money/property that has been entrusted into their care by the owner, "embezzlement" has occurred.

Embezzlement can be charged as either grand or petty theft and is punished accordingly. If the property embezzled was worth over $950, was an automobile, or was a firearm, then it is grand theft. If the property embezzled was worth $950 or less, it is petty theft. Defense strategies against embezzlement are also very similar to those against grand/petty theft. One major additional possible defense, however, is that you believed you were acting in the best interests of the owner who had entrusted his/her property to you.

A crime basically the same as embezzlement but in the arena of government property is called "misappropriation of public funds" (PC 424). This crime is always a felony, punishable by 2 to 4 years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Common defenses include: lack of criminal intent/negligence and merely "incidental" or "minimal" amounts of property were involved.

  1. Receiving Stolen Property (PC 496)

When you accept possession of, buy, or sell stolen property and did or "should have" known it was, in fact, stolen property, it is a crime in California under Penal Code Section 496.

If the value of the property was $950 or less, it is a misdemeanor, punishable by 12 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. If the property was worth over $950, it is a felony, punishable by 16 months to 3 years in jail and a fine of $10,000.

Possible defense strategies include:

  • Lack of knowledge of the property's stolen status, provided a "reasonable person" would not have known it was stolen.
  • Lack of knowledge that you even possessed the property. Perhaps, for example, it was mixed in with a "mass purchase" or an employee accepted it for your business without your knowledge or consent. Or, you may have been too intoxicated to realize what you were doing at the time.
  • Intent to return the property to its owner or hand it over to the police. This is called "innocent intent."
  1. Burglary (PC 459)

Whenever someone enters a building or other structure with the intention of committing a theft inside, it is defined as "burglary" in California. In the case of residential structures, it is first-degree burglary; in the case of other structures, it is second-degree burglary.

First-degree burglary is a felony, punishable by 2 to 6 years in state prison. Second-degree burglary, as a misdemeanor, is punishable by a year in jail; but as a felony, it is punishable by 16 months to 3 years in jail.

Common defense strategies used against burglary charges include:

  • Lack of intent. You had not intent to steal anything (thus, you committed only "breaking and entering" at most), or you did not form an intent to steal until after entering the building.
  • You only took property that actually belonged to you or that you genuinely and reasonably believed to belong to you.
  • You are the victim of mistaken identity. Given that burglars disguise themselves and come during the dark hours of the night, it is easy for a mis-identification to take place when the burglar is not immediately apprehended by police.
  1. Robbery (PC 211)

"Robbery" occurs when a person uses force or threats to steal property off the person of or out of the immediate control of another person. It occurs in the victim's immediate presence and against the will of the property owner.

If a robbery is committed against a transportation worker, in a residential structure, or at/near an ATM, it is first-degree robbery and is punishable by 3 to 9 years in state prison. Otherwise, it is second-degree robbery, punishable by 2 to 5 years in prison. Either way, it is a felony.

Defenses include: no force/fear was used to take the property, you believed the property to be yours, mistaken identity, and false accusations.

Contact Us Today for Help

At Pasadena Criminal Attorney, we have extensive experience across a wide range of theft crime practice areas, and we stand ready to come to your aid today and begin building you a solid defense. We have a long track record of winning dismissals, acquittals, and reduced charges/sentences in theft crime cases, and we can do the same for you.

For a free legal consultation and a quick commencement of your case, call us anytime 24/7/365 at 626-689-2277.

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