Petty theft is among the most common theft crimes in California. The offense incorporates strategies such as the use of trick, larceny, false pretense, and embezzlement as long as the property in question has a value of 950 dollars or less. Thus, you need proper legal representation to help you battle any petty theft charge. Vista Criminal Attorney Law Firm provides the necessary legal representation for petty theft cases throughout Vista, CA and North County.

Legal Definition Of Petty Theft

Penal codes 484 (a) and 488 define petty theft generally as unlawful taking of property whose value is nine hundred and fifty (950) dollars or less. It can also be described further by considering the various specific types of petty theft which have different crime elements. Some of these types include theft by larceny, theft by false pretense, theft by trick, and theft by embezzlement.

Theft by larceny occurs when you carry off someone’s property physically. Legally, theft by larceny involves taking the possession of another person’s property without his or her permission with an intention to own it permanently or temporarily. To be charged with this offense, there must be proof that you moved the item a certain distance (regardless of how short the distance was) and kept the property for a certain period of time.

False pretense takes three legal interpretations in California: (a) a person supplied information that is known to them as untrustworthy, yet, they asserted that the information was right, (b) a person refused to supply some facts or information when it was their duty to give the information, (c) a person made promises which they didn’t intend to accomplish. Therefore, petty theft by false pretense under PEN 532 involves deceiving another person intentionally and taking his or her property. To be charged under this statute, you must have intended to persuade the complainant to allow you to take the possession of his or her property. Then, while depending on your fabricated information, they surrendered the property to you.

Before you are convicted of theft through false pretense, it must be ascertained that the complainant was relying on the information you falsely supplied. A prosecutor must produce any of these pieces of evidence to support a theft by false pretense claim:

  • A testimony given by not less than two witnesses;
  • A declaration from one witness backed up by other relevant evidence;
  • False writings in form of items such as faked identity documents;
  • A handwritten memorandum or note.

Petty theft by use of trick is defined under PEN 484 as the act of obtaining another person’s property using deceit or fraud. While acquiring the item, you had the intention to either take the ownership from the individual permanently or for a certain period enough to make the owner lose a substantial portion or value of the property enjoyment. During the incident, you reserved the item for a given period of time and the owner had no intention of transferring the property ownership to you, but they relied on your trickery.

Petty theft through embezzlement occurs when a property owner transfers his or her property to another person because of the trust they have in that person. But upon being assigned the property, the person fraudulently uses the property for personal benefits. It must also be proved that the person receiving the property had an aim of depriving the owner of their ownership rights either permanently or temporarily. In this case, taking or using another person’s property fraudulently means that the accused took advantage of the owner’s confidence in them, making the owner incur a loss or damage to the property.

Theft committed through false pretense and by use of tricks are often charged interchangeably. However, there exists a dissimilarity between these two forms of theft. While theft through false pretense involves the alleged victim surrendering the possession of the property in question to the alleged “thief”, theft through the use of tricks involves the owner losing the property ownership without his/her intention. Simply put, a theft by pretense case means that a person surrendered both the ownership and possession while the latter case means that the person only surrendered possession of their property.

What is the Difference between Shoplifting and Petty Theft?

Shoplifting is defined under PC 459.5 as going into a commercial set up, while open during the usual business hours, with the aim of stealing goods worth 950 dollars or less. While petty theft focuses on the real taking of the item, the shoplifting charges center on the entry into a store or an establishment with the intention of committing petty theft.

How do Grand Theft and Petty Theft in California Differ?

The critical dissimilarity between grand theft and petty theft is the worth of the items in question. For petty theft, the amount should be 950 dollars or less whereas violation of penal code 487 grand theft means that the value of the property should be above 950 dollars. Previously, theft in California was seen as grand theft when it could be ascertained that the property was stolen from someone through means like pick pocketing or if the property was a car or a gun, regardless of whether the value was 950 dollars or below. However, the enactment of Proposition 47 in 2014 brought significant changes to the petty theft laws, which makes petty theft charges to rely on the item’s value.

Despite the enactment of Prop 47, the law still views stealing of firearms, cars, and pick pocketing as grand theft if the accused has a prior conviction of some serious crimes like murder, sex with a minor under 14 years, and forcible sex. 

How is the Property Worth Determined?

To know if an offense is a petty theft or a grand theft, the court must find out the cost of the commodity alleged to have been stolen. The determination is done by using the fair market price of the item, which is usually the labeled price tag. However, when the stolen property bears no price tag or was bought a long time ago, the technique of fair market price may be difficult and, possibly, advantageous to the defendant.

Offenses Related to Petty Theft

Different crimes may be charged together with or instead of the penal code 488 (a) petty theft.

Grand Theft Firearm, Grand Theft, and Grand Theft auto (penal codes 484 and 487)

Grand theft has similar crime elements to petty theft, but the property’s value must exceed 950 dollars. This offense is a wobbler; a misdemeanor grand theft is punished by a maximum jail term of one year while a felony grand theft is punished by sixteen months, two years, or three years in county jail. A convict would face similar felony punishments if the property in question is a firearm, but they are confined in the state prison instead of county jail.

Grand theft auto and grand theft firearm involve automobiles and guns respectively, and both offenses are treated as felonies.

Burglary and Auto Burglary (PEN 459)

PC 459 applies when someone enters any building or an enclosed premise with the intention of committing a crime – either grand theft or a felony – while inside the premise. On the other hand, an auto burglary occurs when a person enters a vehicle with the aim of stealing the car, the property inside the car, or committing any other crime inside the car which is considered a felony. Auto burglary is one form of the second-degree burglaries, where the crime scene is not an inhabited place. Some examples of auto burglary include unlocking a locked automobile using objects like screwdrivers with the intention of driving the car away or stealing some valuables. It may also involve breaking into a locked car with the intention of hiding or concealing yourself inside it to kidnap the owner upon his or her return. In some cases, it may involve smashing the window of a locked automobile to steal a phone that the owner might have left in the car.

Burglary is treated as a felony and punished by a maximum of three years in a county jail. However, the sentence is higher if the crime scene is inhabited or a current residence such as a trailer; a maximum of six years in state prison would apply.  

Robbery (PEN 211)

A person violates robbery laws if they use force or fear to acquire property from another person’s immediate possession. The alleged victim should be present at the crime scene for the robbery charges to hold. If the value of the stolen property is less than 950 dollars, the person will face both robbery and petty theft charges. Violating penal code 211 is always a felony, and is charged differently depending on whether it is a first degree or second-degree. A first-degree offense takes place in an occupied building, involves robbing of an individual who has just finished using an ATM but is still within the ATMs vicinity or robbing a driver or passenger in a vehicle. If the robbery does not meet any of these components of the first-degree robbery, then it is a second-degree robbery.

A first-degree robbery offense is always a felony carrying a sentence of three, four, or six years in the state prison. The court can as well impose a fine of up to 10,000 dollars. The punishment for a second-degree robbery entails two, three, or five years in the state prison, a maximum fine of 10,000 dollars, or both the imprisonment and fine. In both degrees, a formal felony probation can be issued as well.

Mail Theft (PEN  530.5e)

A person violates penal code 530.5e if they take or steal any mail from either a mailbox, receptacle, or any other authorized mail depositories situated in a post office or letter carrier. The prosecutor must prove that the said person used violence to obtain or made an attempt to get any piece of mail from the post office or letter carrier. Also, it is a crime under this statute to remove the contents, destroy, hide, buy, or unlawfully possess any mail which is stolen. Examples of correspondence include letters, postcards, packages, and even mail cards.

Mail theft is a misdemeanor offense in California. The penalties include a misdemeanor summary probation, a maximum county jail term of one year, and/or a maximum fine of 1000 dollars.

Penalties for Petty Theft

This offense is a misdemeanor, punishable by an informal summary probation, a maximum county jail term of six months and/or a maximum fine of 1000 dollars.

If you have a prior conviction of some petty theft-related offenses, your penalties may be increased. Some of the crimes whose prior conviction could result in amplified penalties are robbery, carjacking, petty theft, burglary, grand theft auto, and grand theft. However, the sentence enhancements only apply if you have a prior conviction of theft, misappropriation, or conning an aged individual and you are either a sex offender, or you have a conviction of a serious crime like murder, manslaughter, gross vehicular manslaughter, or forcible sex.

Under the above prior conviction specification, your petty theft case would be considered as a wobbler offense: misdemeanor penalties will involve an increased county jail term from six months to one year. As a felony, state imprisonment will include sixteen months, two years, or three years.  

If you have committed the petty theft crime for the first time and had no other history of a theft crime in California, the judge may reduce the charges to an infraction offense. The same also applies when the value of the item you stole is less than 50 dollars. In these situations, your penalties may also be cut to a fine of just 250 dollars instead of a jail term and 1000 dollars. This process is known as a diversion program.

How Does the Petty Theft Diversion Program Work?

The diversion program first involves having the petty theft allegations dismissed. Consequently, you will be required to repay the property value you are alleged to have stolen, complete agreed hours of some community work, and attend anti-theft classes.   

What Are The Legal Defenses For Petty Theft In California?

Penal code 484 (a) and 488 petty theft can subject you to severe consequences. However, various defense strategies can be used to convince the judge to dismiss the charges or even reduce the charges to an infraction.

You did not intend to sneak away with the item

If you are accused of petty theft, your defense attorney can claim that you did not mean to steal the item in question, but you became preoccupied or overlooked paying for the goods. Additionally, they can explain that you were distracted or you were in a phone call and hence, ended up not paying for the item. The attorney may also argue that you had left a valuable item unattended in a car and, therefore while shopping, decided to rush for it. This legal defense applies mostly to shoplifting cases.

You thought that the commodity you ‘Stole’ was yours

Petty theft applies when you had the intention to steal. Hence, when the item you are purported to have taken is yours, or you have a belief that it is yours, then your attorney can defend you because you did not intend to steal. For instance, after shopping in the mall, you picked a parcel which exactly looked like yours. Here, you had a belief that the package belonged to you and that you did not want to engage in theft.

Consent from the owner

In some cases, your criminal attorney may claim that the owner of the property you are accused of stealing from allowed you to go with the property in question. Under this circumstance, you will not be held responsible for  theft. However, this legal dimension may not apply if you go beyond the consent limits you agreed with the owner of the item. It may not also relate to a situation where you received the owner’s consent out of false pretense.

False accusation

It is a fact that many people in California have been arrested and charged with petty theft falsely. Your petty theft attorney can use this defense strategy to convince the court that the plaintiff accused you wrongfully of stealing, which may have stemmed from malice, the desire to revenge, or mistaken identity. Having witnesses to testify that you were not involved in stealing will help to supplement this defense strategy.

Find a Vista Criminal Attorney Near Me

Being convicted of petty theft in California comes with adverse life-changing consequences, especially if you are wrongly accused. Besides, you can be charged with other offenses related to petty theft such as burglary, robbery, and shoplifting on top of a petty theft charge. Luckily, at Vista Criminal Attorney Law Firm, we have experienced attorneys who are ready to defend you in case you are accused of petty theft or any other theft crimes in Vista, CA and North County areas. We are awaiting your call today at 760-691-1551 so that we can help you fight the charges.