Theft involves taking another’s property without their consent for personal use or gain, or to deprive the owner of the stolen property permanently. In context, the definition appears simple. However, in breaking down the elements in the description, theft as a crime takes shape through cases of petty theft, shoplifting, grand theft, and embezzlement.

Fighting theft crimes begins with understanding what constitutes theft, what the prosecution seeks to prove, and most importantly, what your legal options are. Our team at California Criminal Lawyer Group is ready to help in your defense against theft charges.

Theft Crimes in California

It is in your best interest to have an understanding of what the various theft crimes are. Our analysis is based on the statutes in place within California’s Penal System.

1. Petty Theft, Penal Code 484 and 488

The definition of petty theft depends on the circumstances of a case. The elements of the crime define the crime to which you stand accused. However, the value in petty theft cases is no more than $950. The various forms of petty theft include petty theft by larceny, trick, and fraud.

Petty Theft by Larceny

According to Penal Code 484, larceny is the taking of another person’s property and physically carrying it off. From this definition, the prosecution will seek to prove that you made away with another person’s property without their consent to deprive them of the use of the said property permanently. Furthermore, your actions deny the owner of the benefits of the property for a significant period. Larceny charges can also be brought against you even in cases where you moved the property for a small distance and kept it for a brief period.

Petty Theft by Trick

Theft by trick as per Penal Code 484 is defined under a set of conditions. These conditions have to be proven to have occurred for the prosecution to have a case against you under theft by trick charges. These aspects include:

  • Obtaining property you were aware belonged to another person
  • Deceiving the property owner into giving you possession rights to their property
  • Intending to deprive the owner of the property, for a period that would deny them access to the benefits of their possession
  • Retaining the property for some time. The duration is not questioned. What is critical for the case is that the period was long enough to deny the owner of the property to enjoy the benefits that come with the property.
  • It was not the owner’s intention to transfer the property to you

Petty Theft by Fraud

Penal Code 532 defines theft by fraud or theft by false pretense. You both knowingly and intentionally deceived a property owner into convincing them to pass on their property to you and that they relied on your false pretense while giving their ownership rights to you. The law sets out what false pretense and relying on the false pretense on the part of the property owner means.

The prosecution can only bring forward theft by false pretense if the crime fits the definition. Some aspects that make up false pretense include:

  • You knowingly passed on false information to another,
  • Making a promise that you had no intention of fulfilling,
  • Failing to offer information that you were obligated to provide, or
  • Recklessly passing information as accurate to which there is no basis of its truth.

In examining reliance on false pretense, the prosecution needs to prove that the owner of the property passed on ownership to you relying on the false information (false pretense) that you gave. False pretense is not the only reason that brings out your culpability, but it is fundamental. The prosecution will need to produce evidence to convince the jury of the false pretense. In its submission, any of the following can be brought forward to support the claim of false pretense.

  • Testimonies from any witness to the crime with supporting evidence,
  • A document containing false writing, such as a fake ID. Furthermore, they can present a memorandum with your handwriting as evidence of falsified information, or
  • Testimonies from at least two witnesses.

The evidence is in place to avoid introducing theft by fraud charges based on hearsay. Petty theft by trick is often thought to be similar to petty theft by fraud. While there may be similarities, the transfer of ownership is the differentiator. In theft by trick cases, the owner never intends to pass on ownership to you but passes on possession to you. However, for theft by fraud cases, passes on both ownership and possession.

If convicted for a petty crime, you are looking at a fine of no more than $1,000 with a possibility of six months in jail. A judge may require you to serve summary probation as an alternative to your incarceration. If you are a first-time petty theft offender or the value of the commodities stolen was less than $50, your charges will be reduced to an infraction to which you will be required to pay a fine of no more than $250.

However, if you are a first-time offender, but the value of the property in the case is more than $50, you can still avoid jail time. You will have to attend an anti-theft program, serve the mandated time in community service, and return the goods you allegedly stole.

An excellent legal attorney tailors their defense based on the circumstances in your case. Some of the defenses they may use for your case include:

  • You did not intend to steal the property in the case. Your actions were because of aspects such as a distraction by your surroundings.
  • You believed the item to be yours. Thus you did not intend to steal it. It, therefore, means that you mistook the property to be yours in good faith. If so, you will not be held liable.

2. Shoplifting

Entering an open establishment to steal merchandise worth $950 or less, amounts to shoplifting. Penal Code 495.5 provides for the following elements to be met for you to be liable for shoplifting charges. The components are:

  • The establishment was open and operating within business hours
  • You entered the premises
  • You intended to leave with property valued at no more than $950 without paying for them

The intention is critical in a shoplifting case. The prosecution must demonstrate to the court that you meant to get into the store and take-off with the merchandise without paying. Once you take a product while inside without intending to steal it, you are not culpable for the crime. Therefore, you are only guilty of the crime if you intended to shoplift whether or not you followed through with the act.

Shoplifting is a misdemeanor offense. If convicted, you could serve up to six months in jail and/or pay a fine of $1,000. However, you may serve summary probation as an alternative to the jail sentence. Any prior convictions introduce stringent penalties for the crime. Your case will be handled as a felony attracting a fine of $10,000 and/or sixteen months, two years, or three years spent in jail. The judge may require you to serve formal probation to avoid jail time. The judge will consider the following convictions:

  • Solicitation to commit murder
  • Sex charge against a minor
  • Possession of a weapon of mass destruction
  • Attempted murder or murder
  • Assault on a firefighter or a peace officer with a machine gun
  • Vehicular manslaughter
  • Any sex charges that require registration as a sex offender

It is worth noting that many defendants worry if further charges of burglary or theft can be added to the shoplifting crime. However, Penal Code 459.5 stipulates that you cannot be charged for theft or burglary of the same property if you are already charged for shoplifting.

Before Proposition 47, felony burglary charges were brought forward on anyone who entered premises during business hours intending to steal a commodity valued at less than $950. However, after the enactment of Proposition 47, you only get charged for a misdemeanor shoplifting offense if you entered business premises during business hours to steal merchandise whose value does not exceed $ 950. Therefore, what was commercial burglary before proposition 47 is now a misdemeanor shoplifting matter punishable under Penal Code 459.5.

Fighting Shoplifting Charges

Here is a look at some of the legal defenses your defense attorney will use in your case:

  • You did not intend to steal the merchandise before walking into the premises. This means that if your intention changed after you were on the premises, you are not guilty of the crime.
  • You were a victim of mistaken identity.
  • The shoplifting charges brought against you were the result of improper investigations, racial bias, or a case of fabricated evidence.

3. Grand Theft

Grand theft mirrors petty theft as you will see from the subsequent discussions. However, what sets the two apart is the value in the case and the type of property. In Grand Theft cases, the value is any amount over $950.  Penal Code 532 provides the definition of Grand Theft and the prosecution parameters. It is similar to petty theft cases in that there is grand theft by larceny, trick, and fraud.

Grand Theft by Larceny

Larceny is defined as the taking of another’s property without their express permission to deprive the owner of the rights to the property. Father, the property should have been taken for a period enough to deny the owner enjoyment of the rights to the property or permanently.

Grand Theft by Trick

Theft by trick is best defined by looking at pertinent issues that should be proven by the prosecutors. In their submission, they need to demonstrate to the court that:

  • You deceived the property owner into transferring possession of the said property to you
  • You obtained property that belonged to another
  • The property owner had no intention of transferring ownership to you
  • You had the property for some time

Grand Theft by Fraud

Penal Code 532 provides for the definition of fraud or false pretense as the willful actions tailored to acquire ownership of another’s property using the falsified information. For you to be criminally liable, the prosecution must also prove that the owner of the property relied on the pretense to transfer ownership and possession to you.

False pretenses as per the law are best described in the following actions:

  • You intended to deceive another
  • If you gave a promise, you did not mean to honor
  • You said something knowing it was false
  • You recklessly said a statement to pass it as accurate with no basis to believe it
  • You failed to provide information you had an obligation to provide

It is upon the prosecution to provide evidence to support their charge. Such evidence is provided for by a witness account that needs corroborating evidence, a fake document, manipulated information in your handwriting, or a testimony from two or more witnesses.

In prosecuting grand theft by trick, it must be proven that the owner was transferring possession and not ownership to you. However, in theft by fraud cases, the owner of the said property transferred both ownership and control to you.

Penal Code 487 categorizes grand theft as a wobbler offense. The prosecution may prefer felony or misdemeanor charges depending on the circumstances surrounding your case and your criminal past. If you are facing misdemeanor charges, you could face no more than one year in jail if convicted. However, if the prosecution charges you with a felony offense, you could spend sixteen months, two years, or three years in prison. If not, you could serve one year of probation.

In the event a firearm was used when committing the crime, you are looking at felony charges with the penalties as stated above. The judge will consider the three-strikes law in penalizing you for the crime because the use of a crime in a theft case is regarded as a serious felony, one prosecuted under Penal Code 1192.7.

The law further provides for a sentence enhancement with specific values set as the benchmark:

  • If the value exceeds $65,000, one year will be added to your sentence
  • If the value exceeds $200,000, two years will be added to your sentence
  • If the value exceeds $1,300,000, three more years will be added to your sentence
  • For property over $3,200,000, you are looking at four more years in your sentence

It is worth noting that multiple cases of grand theft are not tried on their own. The total value in each case will be summed, and you will be tried for one grand theft charge of the total value in all cases.

Legal Defenses for Grand Theft Cases

An experienced legal attorney will use the following legal defenses, among others in helping you fight the grand theft charges:

  • Stealing was not your intention
  • You were falsely accused, or it is a case of mistaken identity
  • The property in question belonged to you
  • The owner of the property intended consented to you taking the property

4. Embezzlement

Embezzlement is the fraudulent misappropriation of funds or property to which you were entrusted in the care. Embezzlement may pass for a white-collar crime with the assumption that it involves large sums of money. Penal Code 503 allows for anyone to be prosecuted for the crime for little amounts and in any relationship and not just the professional ones.

The crime is deemed to have occurred if the following elements of the crime occurred:

  • The property owner entrusted you with the property. This can be either directly or through an agent.
  • You fraudulently converted the property to enjoy the benefits it presented at the expense of the owner.
  • Your intentions were meant to deprive the owner of the property, its use, and the benefits that follow.

Trust as an element of the crime, is born of a relationship. There are several trust relationships the law considers, including:

  • That of an employee and an employer
  • A board member, a trustee in an organization, a principal, or a CEO or director of a company
  • A Bailee who has temporary possession rights to allow them to use the property as per the agreement with the owner

Fraud, in this case, is an action that breaks the duty of care that was placed on you by the owner of the property. The prosecution will have to show that you went beyond the understanding, you had with the property owner, and that you used the property to make a personal gain at the expense of the owner. Further, the prosecution must prove that in your actions, you deprived the owner of the use and the benefits of the property.

Embezzlement can occur in various ways. Its execution may be through petty theft or grand theft.

Petty Theft Embezzlement

Petty theft embezzlement as a crime involves misappropriating funds or property at the expense of the owner with the value of said property or funds totaling to an amount less than $950.

Grand Theft Embezzlement

According to Penal Code 487, grand theft embezzlement is deemed to have occurred if the following are true:

  • That the value of the property in the case is above $950. Further, if you embezzled small sums that amounted to $950 over twelve months, you will be guilty of embezzlement charges.
  • If the property in the case is a vehicle if so, you will be charged with grand theft auto offense.
  • If a firearm was used in the crime, you could be charged with a grand theft firearm offense.

Penal Code 503 lays out the punishment for embezzlement. The penalties are pegged on the value in the case as well as the type of embezzlement.

Petty theft embezzlement is prosecuted as a misdemeanor. Penal Code 488 additionally provides that probation, a six-month jail term, and a fine of $1,000 are all penalties available. The presiding judge has the discretion of which punishments to impose for the crime.

Grand theft embezzlement, on the other hand, is prosecuted as a felony or as a misdemeanor. Misdemeanor charges include a fine of no more than $1,000 and a jail term of up to one year. You also have the option of serving summary probation to avoid jail time. Felony charges, however, carry harsher penalties. You could be required to part with an amount, not over $10,000. Prison time may come attached to the fines. If convicted, you could spend up to sixteen months, two years, or three years in jail. Alternatively, you could serve a formal probation sentence with the terms of the probation dictated by the judge.

Additional penalties for the grand theft offense will be imposed if the value of the loss is an amount above $65,000. You are looking at:

  • An additional one year to the sentence for property or funds worth more than $65,000
  • Two years added to your sentence for any property loss that amounts to $200,000 and above
  • Three more years in jail for property valued at above $1,300,000
  • An additional four years if the loss is valued at more than $3,200,000

A judge will consider other factors to impose stricter penalties for the grand theft crime. These factors are termed as aggravating factors. If the victim is elderly, or dependent on another because of health issues such as physical or mental impairment, the judge will introduce more stringent penalties. Should you decide to return the property before you are charged with grand theft charges, the judge would consider issuing less severe punishments. However, your charges will not be dropped.

Possible Defenses for Embezzlement Cases

While embezzlement cases may have dire consequences, they are defensible, and with the right attorney, you can have the charges dropped or reduced. Some of the defenses your attorney may use include:

  • You were a victim of false accusation
  • You had no criminal intent in your actions
  • You believed you had the rights to the property

Find a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

Theft crimes impose life-changing consequences to those convicted of the charges. These consequences can, however, be reduced or thrown away depending on the circumstances in your case. You need a capable legal team to ensure your innocence is proven. Call the California Criminal Lawyer Group 408-622-0204 for a consultation regarding your charges.