9 Things Everyone Should Know About Petty Theft Charges In California

CA Penal Code Sections 484 & 488

In this post, I will explain nine (9) things you should know about petty theft charges including the four different types of petty theft and how much needs to be taken for a prosecutor to charge someone with petty theft.

I will also cover how you or your attorney may approach defending against these charges.

Note: After the passage of Proposition 47, petty theft no longer covers shoplifting which is prosecuted under penal code 459.5.

Let’s get started…

Overview Of Petty Theft Charges Under Penal Code 484 PC

The crime of petty theft is committed when:

  • The value of the property is $950 or less;
  • The property is not taken directly from the owner, such as from the person’s clothing, body, or container held or carried by, the person (such as in a case of mugging or robbery);

California’s law on petty theft, California penal code section 484(a) pc defines theft as the intentional and unlawful taking of the personal property of another1.

Watch this video to understand Penal Code 484

The property taken must not be any of the following types of property which is prosecuted under different code sections.

  1. Automobile (which would charged under grand theft auto – PC 487(d)(1))
  2. Firearm
  3. Horse
  4. Fruit/nuts worth more than $250
  5. Fish/shellfish/aquacultural products worth more than $250 when taken from a commercial fishery/research operation

What Types of Theft May Give Rise to Petty Theft Under Penal Code 484

Depending on the type of petty theft that took place, the elements the prosecutor must prove to convict a defendant will change.

The different types of petty theft include:

  • Theft by false pretense
  • Theft by larceny
  • Theft by trick
  • Theft by embezzlement

What Is Theft By False Pretense?2

Theft by false pretenses occurs when a defendant uses false pretense to convince the property owner to turn over possession and title/ownership of the property to the defendant.

Example Of Petty Theft By False Pretense

A man went into a shop and falsely claimed to be someone that he was not so that he could pick up a package that was not purchased by him.

Elements Required for a Conviction of Theft by False Pretense:

  • You knowingly and intentionally deceived a property owner by false or fraudulent representation or pretense;
  • You did so intending to persuade the owner, or the owner’s agent, to let the defendant, or another person, take possession and ownership of the property;
  • The owner let you, or another person, take possession and ownership of the property because the owner, relied on the representation or pretense.

What Is Theft by Larceny (Penal Code Section 484):

A majority of petty theft cases involve theft by “larceny.”

Example of Theft by Larceny

A man wakes up after a party at his home to discover that money was stolen from his wallet.

Elements to Convict a Defendant for Theft By Larceny Include the Following:

  • You took possession of property owned by someone else;
  • You took the property without the owner’s consent;
  • When you took the property, you intended to deprive the owner of it permanently or to remove it from the owner’s possession for so extended a period of time that the owner would be deprived of a major portion of the value or enjoyment of the property; AND
  • You moved the property, even a small distance, and kept it for any period of time, however brief3

What Is Theft By Trick:

Petty theft by trick under PC 484 is similar to petty theft by false pretense.  The main difference between the two is that in cases of petty theft by false pretense, the owner of the property turns over both possession and title/ownership of the property to the thief.

Whereas, in cases of petty theft by trick, the owner merely gives the thief possession of the property, but not ownership/title.4:

Example

A persons lawn mower breaks and a neighbor tells them that he will fix the lawnmower for no charge.

The lawn mower is never returned depriving the owner of possession but not ownership.

Theft By Embezzlement (Penal Code, §§ 484, 503):

Theft by embezzlement occurs when:

  • An owner entrusted his/her property to you5;
  • The owner did so because he/she trusted you;
  • You fraudulently6. converted/used that property for your own benefit; and
  • When you converted/used the property, you intended to deprive the owner of the property or its use even if only temporarily7.
Example

A store clerk that works at a department store pockets some of the cash after work.

She can be charged with theft by embezzlement – PC 503, because she was entrusted with the cash but decided to keep the cash for herself.

What is the Difference Between Petty Theft and Grand Theft?

The most important difference between petty theft and a grand theft charge is if the value of the items taken was more or less than $950.

Petty Theft Grand Theft
The property stolen was worth $950 or less8 The property stolen was worth more than $950
The property was not taken directly from the owner, such as from the person’s clothing, body, or container held or carried by, the person. The property was taken from a person, no matter how much the property is worth.
The property taken was NOT any of the following types of property:

  • automobile
  • firearm
  • horse
  • fruit/nuts worth more than $250
  • fish/shellfish/aquacultural products worth more than $250 when taken from a commercial fishery/research operation
  • The property stolen was an automobile or firearm
  • The property stolen was fruit/nuts/ worth more than $250
  • The property stolen was fish, shellfish, or aquacultural products worth more than $250 if taken from a commercial fishery or research operation
Usually charged as a misdemeanor.

If convicted, the following penalties may apply:

  • Probation
  • Up to six 6 months in county jail, and/or
  • A fine of up to $1,000
May be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony.

  • If charged as a misdemeanor: up to one (1) year in county jail
  • If charged as a felony: up to 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in state prison

How Can You Fight Petty Theft Charges?

The most common defenses that an attorney can put forward to defend a charge of petty theft are as follows:

You Had No Intent To Steal

Intent is one of the requisite elements that a prosecutor has to show in order to convict a defendant of a theft crime.

If you did not have the intent to steal in the first place, you are not guilty of petty theft under PC 484.

You Had Consent From The Owner

If the owner of the property that you allegedly stole gave you permission to take the property, you are not guilty of petty theft under PC 484.

Belief That The Property Belonged To You

If the property actually belonged to you or if you honestly but mistakenly thought that the property you took belonged to you, you are not guilty of petty theft.

This additionally shows that your intent was not to take the property; rather to claim or re-claim what you thought was rightfully yours9.

You Were Falsely Accused

If you were wrongfully accused of taking something, but you did not do so or did not intend to do so, your criminal defense attorney will ensure to thoroughly investigate the evidence in your favor and to try to show that you were wrongfully blamed for something you did not do.

What Are The Penalties, Punishment and Sentencing Guidelines for Petty Theft?

Petty theft is typically charged as a misdemeanor offense in California.

Penalties For Petty Theft:

Property Under $50 in Value

Pursuant to California Penal Section 490.1, if you stole property the value of which is $50 or less, your attorney may be able to convince a prosecutor to reduce your charge to an infraction.  This applies if you have no other theft or theft-related convictions on record. 10

Multiple Theft Penalty Enhancement Pursuant to PC 12022.6(a):

If there are multiple charges of theft, whether grand or petty theft, and the aggregate loss exceeds any of the statutory minimums in California Penal Code Section 12022.6(a), and the thefts arise from a common scheme or plan, an additional prison term may be imposed.

If the aggregate loss exceeds statutory amounts ranging from $50,000 to $2.5 million, an additional term of one to four years may be imposed11.

Can you expunge petty theft?

Yes in most cases. Petty theft is stealing items with a value of $950 or less and is usually charged as a misdemeanor.

However, petty theft can be charged as a felony if you have a prior conviction of stealing, embezzling or defrauding an elderly person, or your prior was a serious offense such as homicide, a forcible sex offense, or sex offense against a minor.

In these cases, you face state prison time and if served, will render you ineligible to have the offense expunged. 

You can see if your eligible for expungement with our expungement eligibility test.

Related Offenses

Petty Theft With a Prior

Pursuant to California Penal Code Section 666 – Petty Theft With a Prior, if you have been convicted three or more times of any of the following offenses (listed below), and you served time, you may face increased penalties for a petty theft conviction:

Next Steps If Charged

If you have been arrested and would like to learn more about what attorneys charge.

If you want to understand why it is important to have an attorney represent you.

If you are ready to discuss a pending case contact the Aizman Law Firm at 818-351-9555 for a free confidential consultation.

Footnotes

  1. California Penal Code 484(a) PC – Every person who shall feloniously steal, take, carry, lead, or drive away the personal property of another, or who shall fraudulently appropriate property which has been entrusted to him or her, or who shall knowingly and designedly, by any false or fraudulent representation or pretense, defraud any other person of money, labor or real or personal property, or who causes or procures others to report falsely of his or her wealth or mercantile character and by thus imposing upon any person, obtains credit and thereby fraudulently gets or obtains possession of money, or property or obtains the labor or service of another, is guilty of theft. []
  2. Penal Code Section 484 []
  3. To constitute a completed theft, the property must be asported or carried away. (People v. Shannon (1998) 66 Cal.App.4th 649, 654 [78 Cal.Rptr.2d 177].) Asportation requires three things: (1) the goods are severed from the possession or custody of the owner, (2) the goods are in the complete possession of the thief or thieves, and (3) the property is moved, however slightly. (Ibid. People v. Edwards (1925) 72 Cal.App. 102, 114–115 [236 P. 944], disapproved on other grounds in In re Estrada (1965) 63 Cal.2d 740 [48 Cal.Rptr. 172, 408 P.2d 948]; People v. Collins (1959) 172 Cal.App.2d 295, 299 [342 P.2d 370] [joint possession of property by more than one thief].) Asportation is fulfilled by wrongful removal of property from the owner or possessor, against his or her will with the intent to steal it, even though the property is retained by the thief but a moment. (People v. Quiel (1945) 68 Cal.App.2d 674, 679 [157 P.2d 446]. []
  4. Although fraud is used to obtain the property in both thefts by trick and theft by false pretense, in theft by false pretense, the thief obtains both possession and title to the property. For theft by trick, the thief gains only possession of the property. (People v. Ashley (1954) 42 Cal.2d 246, 258 [267 P.2d 271]; People v. Randono (1973) 32 Cal.App.3d 164, 172 [108 Cal.Rptr. 326]; People v. Traster (2003) 111 Cal.App.4th 1377, 1387 [4 Cal.Rptr.3d 680]. []
  5. Elements. Pen. Code, §§ 484 PC, 503–515 []
  6. Fraud Defined. People v. Talbot (1934) 220 Cal. 3, 15 [28 P.2d 1057]; People v. Stein (1979) 94 Cal.App.3d 235, 241 [156 Cal.Rptr. 299] []
  7. Intent to Temporarily Deprive Owner of Property Sufficient. People v. Casas (2010) 184 Cal.App.4th 1242, 1246–1247 [109 Cal.Rptr.3d 811]
    [acknowledging general rule for larceny requires intent to permanently deprive owner of property, citing People v. Davis (1998) 19 Cal.4th 301, 305 [79 Cal.Rptr.2d 295, 965 P.2d 1165] []
  8. Determination of Grand vs. Petty Theft Pen. Code, §§ 486, 487–488, 490.2, 491 []
  9. If a person actually believes that he or she has a right to the property even if that belief is mistaken or unreasonable, such belief is a defense to theft. (People v. Romo (1990) 220 Cal.App.3d 514, 518 [269 Cal.Rptr. 440]; see also People v. Devine (1892) 95 Cal. 227, 229 [30 P. 378] [“[i]t is clear that a charge of larceny, which requires an intent to steal, could not be founded on a mere careless taking away of another’s goods”]; In re Bayles (1920) 47 Cal.App. 517, 519–521 [190 P. 1034] [larceny conviction reversed where landlady actually believed she was entitled to take tenant’s property for cleaning fees incurred even if her belief was unreasonable]; People v. Navarro (1979) 99 Cal.App.3d Supp. 1, 4–6, 10–11 [160 Cal.Rptr. 692]; see CALCRIM No. 1863, Defense to Theft or Robbery: Claim of Right. []
  10. Penal Code Section 490.1:  (a) Petty theft, where the value of the money, labor, real or personal property taken is of a value which does not exceed fifty dollars ($50), may be charged as a misdemeanor or an infraction, at the discretion of the prosecutor, provided that the person charged with the offense has no other theft or theft-related conviction.  (b) Any offense charged as an infraction under this section shall be subject to the provisions of subdivision (d) of Section 17 and Sections 19.6 and 19.7.  A violation which is an infraction under this section is punishable by a fine not exceeding two hundred fifty dollars ($250). []
  11. Pen. Code, § 12022.6(a)(1)–(4); see People v. Daniel (1983) 145 Cal.App.3d 168, 174–175 [193 Cal.Rptr. 277] [no error in refusing to give unanimity instruction]. []

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