When you take someone’s item or property whose value is less than $950, you are guilty of petty theft under California Penal Code 484. The most common form of petty theft includes larceny, theft by trickery, but can include more serious theft offenses. Petty theft is usually charged as a misdemeanor and has the potential of landing you in jail. The California Criminal Lawyer Group specializes in providing criminal defense services to individuals who are facing charges of petty theft. The attorneys at the firm have accumulated years of experience in defending against charges of petty theft. In addition to defense services, you will be informed about the laws under which you are being charged, the penalties and the defenses you may apply.


Theft is the crime of unlawfully and willingly taking away the property of another person with the intent to withhold the property from its owner permanently. California divides theft laws into grand theft and petty theft. You are guilty of petty theft if you unlawfully steal, take or carry away the property of another person through pretense or fraudulent representation, where the value of the property is below $950. The forms of property that may be stolen include real estate, money, personal property, and the value of work or services offered.

 The elements of petty crime differ depending on the type of theft and the circumstances surrounding the offense. The nature of the crime describes how the offense is conducted. Interestingly, you may be charged with theft for deceiving someone into giving you his or her property. Here are the various forms of theft that may qualify as petty theft:

1.      Theft by Larceny

Larceny is the unlawful taking of someone else's property to deprive the owner of the item permanently. It includes the following elements.

  • Taking possession of someone else’s property
  • Without the permission of the owner
  • With the intent to deprive the owner of the item permanently or long enough that the owner does not enjoy the value of the property
  • You moved the property (even slightly) and kept it for a period

2.      Theft by Embezzlement

Embezzlement is a white-collar crime, which involves appropriation of someone else’s property entrusted to you by the owner. Embezzlement is charged as a petty theft offense where the amount value of the stolen property or money does not exceed $950. The elements include:

  • The owner entrusts his or her property to you
  • Based on their trust for you
  • You fraudulently take or use the property for your benefit
  • You had the intention of depriving the owner of his or her property when you took it

Theft by embezzlement is based on taking someone’s property fraudulently by taking undue advantage of the owner or breaching his or her confidence in you.

3.      Theft by False Pretense or Fraud

PC 532 prohibits the use of false pretenses or fraudulent representation to defraud another person of his or her money, property, or labor, which results in a loss for the victim. False pretense occurs when you intend to deceive someone by:

  • Intentionally giving false information
  • Saying something is true without any basis of its truthfulness
  • Failing to provide information when you must do so
  • Making a false promise

The elements of petty theft by false pretense include:

  • You knowingly and intentionally deceive the owner of the property
  • To take possession of their property
  • The owner of the property let you have it due to a reliance on your false pretense

You may be guilty of theft by false pretense if you take advantage of someone’s labor without the intention of paying him or her.

The prosecution may use the following to show proof that you made the false pretense:

  • A false writing
  • False tokens that you gave in exchange for property or service such as fake money or fake IDs that you offer to convince the victim
  • A false note signed by the defendant
  • Testimony from one witness together with evidence proving the defendant used false pretense

4.       Theft by Trick

You are guilty of theft by trickery if:

  • You unlawfully and knowingly obtain someone else’s property
  • Through deceiving the owner, so that they let you have possession of the property
  • You intended to deprive the owner off the item permanently or long enough that the owner would miss enjoying its value
  • You kept the property for sometime
  • The owner of the property had no intention of transferring ownership to you

The difference between petty theft by false pretense and petty theft by trick is that in the later, the owner does not intend to transfer ownership, just the possession. For example, if you take someone’s phone under the pretense that you will fix a problem, but instead, you do not return the item, then you are guilty of theft by trickery.

In all cases of theft, the value of the stolen goods is key in determining whether the offense is petty or grand theft. For items with a price tag, price determination is easy. However, for items such as personal property like jewelry, the court will have to use the fair market value of the property at the time of the theft. 

Petty theft and grand theft are closely related offenses separated by the value of the stolen goods. For example, stealing goods worth $1000 can result in a grand theft conviction with possible felony sentencing.

Legal Defenses for Petty Theft

An arrest for petty theft can affect your life, especially if you are convicted of the crime. The conviction stays on your criminal record and can affect your employment opportunities. However, the future is not as gloomy as you might think; with the help of a criminal defense lawyer, you can fight the charges against you in trying to get the best possible outcome.

Remember that, the court requires that the prosecution or defense prove their arguments beyond a reasonable doubt, which allows your defense lawyer to challenge the prosecution’s case. Here are some of the applicable legal defenses:

1.      You had no intention of stealing the item

The prosecution needs to show that you intended to steal the item. Intent as a defense will absolve you from the crime if the following are true:

  • You did not intend to steal the item
  • You did not intend to deprive the owner of the enjoyment of the item

For example, while you are shopping, you may fail to pay for an item due to distraction. If your c=lawyer can convince the jury that a mistake happened, then you are not guilty of the offense.

In some cases, you may be accused of stealing an item you had borrowed. You can use the lack of intent defense to prove that you forgot to return the item. The prosecution has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that you intended to keep the item and deprive the owner of its use.

For example, if the owner of the item constantly asks for the item, and you keep ignoring the request to return it, you may be guilty of petty theft. However, returning an item you had stolen is not a defense to petty theft, although it may help in having a reduced sentence or charges.

If you are being charged for theft through false pretense or fraudulent representation, you can use the lack of intent defense by stating that you did not know what you said was false, and you did not intend for the “victim” to believe it.

If you choose to use this defense, you will have to prove that you genuinely believed your statements were true and that you could keep the promises you made. Proving that you did not have the intent to deceive can be difficult, and may need the skills and expertise of a criminal defense lawyer who understands California theft laws.

2.      You believed the item belonged to you

You can use the defense if the item in question is your property or you had good faith that it belonged to you. The belief that an item is yours makes it impossible for you to steal it, since you already own, or have a good faith belief that you own it.

3.      The owner gave consent to you taking the item

The owner of the property may accuse you of theft after they have consented to you taking the item. The defense of consent applies if they actually consented to you having the item, and you used the item within the scope of the consent. The court will also examine the circumstances under which the consent was obtained. If you used trickery, fraud, or false pretense, then you will have committed petty theft.

4.      False accusations

You may be the victim of false accusations, leading to charges of petty theft. The item may have been planted on you. In some cases, you may be accused of theft by false pretense, by a person who has an ill motive towards you.

If you are accused of committing petty theft by false pretense, the court requires that the prosecution provide proof that the defendant used fraud or false pretense.

For example, if you present a profitable deal to someone, and the person is aware of what they are getting into, the “victim” may turn against you by filing theft charges in case things do not work out according to their desires.

If you believe that the “victim” did not rely on what you told him or her, and you have the proof to back it up, then you can use false accusations or lack of reliance as a defense.

5.      Intoxication

If you were under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or chemicals, you can use intoxication as a defense to show that you could not form the criminal intent to steal. For example, if you take someone’s item, which is similar to you, but you could not tell the difference due to intoxication, then your charges may be dismissed or reduced.

6.       Coercion or Entrapment

If you committed an act due to coercion, you could use duress as a defense. Coercion occurs when another person forces you to commit a criminal act. You should also prove to the court that from the manner, words, or actions of the person, you believed your life or that of another person could be in danger.

In some cases, a law enforcement official may lead you to commit a crime so that they may arrest or prosecute you. If a law enforcement official used threats, fraud, harassment, pressure, or flattery to lure you into committing petty theft, then you can use the defense.

If your lawyer uses entrapment as a defense, he or she will have to prove that you could not have committed the crime under ordinary circumstances.

Penalties and Sentencing for Petty Theft

California convicts petty theft as a misdemeanor with the following penalties:

  • Summary probation
  • A maximum county jail term of six months
  • A fine not exceeding $1000

The court will look at your criminal record to determine whether to enhance your sentence. You may get a sentence enhancement if you have convictions for crimes such as:

  • Petty theft
  • Grand theft, including grand theft auto
  • Burglary
  • Carjacking
  • Robbery
  • Receiving stolen property (felony)

In addition to your criminal history, the court determines whether the prior conviction was in relation to the violation of elder abuse laws.  The court will also determine whether you have one theft-related conviction and either a conviction for a sex crime that requires you to register as a sexual offender or a conviction for a serious felony such as murder or serious sex crimes.

If you satisfy the above conditions, you will be convicted for a wobbler offense depending on your criminal history and the circumstances of the crime. When charged as a misdemeanor, the potential jail term increases to a maximum of one year. As a felony, you face potential incarceration in state prison for 16 months, two years or three years.

The laws of California take petty theft to be a crime of moral turpitude, meaning it may contribute to your deportation from the US or may bar you from becoming a legal citizen of the US.

Reducing Petty Theft Charges and Sentencing

Getting charged with petty theft can be life-changing, but it is not dooming. With the help of your lawyer, you can have your charges reduced or dismissed. Some of the ways your lawyer can have your charges or sentence legally reduced include:

1.      Proposition 47

In 2014, voters in California passed proposition 47, which allowed the reduction of penalties crimes from felonies to misdemeanors or wobbler offenses. Some of the theft crimes that were reduced include:

  • Grand theft auto
  • Grand theft firearm
  • Shoplifting
  • Receiving stolen property

For each of the crimes, the value of stolen items should be equal to or less than $950. Before Proposition 47, the offenses were punished as follows:

  • Grand theft auto and grand theft firearm were convicted as felonies, but are currently misdemeanors under Proposition
  • Shoplifting was treated as burglary, which is a wobbler offense.
  • Receiving stolen property was a wobbler prior to Proposition 47

Under proposition 47, having prior convictions for petty theft does not lead to a sentence enhancement, as it was previously. Your lawyer may request for lesser sentencing or resentencing under Proposition 47 if you are eligible. You are eligible for Proposition 47 unless you have a prior conviction that requires you to register as a sex offender or were convicted for a serious California felony. Resentencing allows the reduction of your offense to a misdemeanor as well as the reduction of your sentence.

You qualify for resenting whether you have completed your sentence or not. If you have completed your sentence, the reduction can help you in acquiring jobs easily, since most people frown upon persons convicted for felonies. However, if you lost your firearm rights, proposition 47 will not restore these rights.

If you are still serving, or have already served your sentence for a felony conviction that qualifies as a misdemeanor under proposition 47, then you can follow the following steps for a resentencing:

  • File a petition requesting a resentencing in the court that convicted you
  • The judge will determine whether the offense qualifies under proposition 47
  • If the offense qualifies, the judges will grant the petition by changing the conviction to a misdemeanor
  • If you are still incarcerated, the sentence is reduced, and in most cases, you will be released.

2.      Petty theft diversion

Petty theft diversion is an informal program that allows the dismissal of all the charges against you. Before your charges are dismissed, you have to meet some conditions such as:

  • Repaying the value of the stolen items
  • Completing community service for a pre-agreed period
  • Attendance of an anti-theft program

3.      Charge Reduction

Your charges may be reduced to an infraction if:

  • You do not have a prior petty theft or theft-related conviction
  • The value of the stolen goods does not exceed $50

If the court agrees to reduce your charges to an infraction, you will pay a maximum fine of $250.

Expungement of Criminal Records

A criminal record has a negative impact on several areas of your life, including employment, professional licensing, and your reputation. California PC 1203.4 provides convicts with freedom from the negative consequences of a conviction.

You are eligible for expungement of a criminal record if:

  • You have successfully completed the probation for the offense by meeting the conditions set by the court. Even if you violated some of the conditions, the court may, at its discretion, allow your records to be expunged
  • You are not facing criminal charges, on probation or serving a sentence for an offense
  • You did not serve time in state prison, or you could have served in county jail under the sentence realignment under Proposition 47

You are not eligible for expungement of records if you are registered as a sex offender or have a conviction for sex crimes involving children.

The following will happen after an expungement:

  • You are legally protected from disclosing your conviction to potential employers unless you want to become a peace officer
  • Your employer cannot deny you employment based on your expunged records

If you lost your gun rights due to a conviction for petty theft, expunging your records will not restore these rights.

The court may also allow you to have your arrest records sealed if you were arrested but:

  • The prosecution did not file charges
  • The statute of limitation for the offense is expired
  • The charges were dismissed
  • You were acquitted in a trial
  • Your conviction was overturned or vacated after an appeal
  • You successfully completed a diversion program

SB 393 removes people who have been arrested and fulfill the above conditions to avoid discrimination based on their arrest. Criminal records can affect your employment, education, tenancy, and credit, as they are available to the public. However, once they are sealed, the public cannot access them.

It is advisable to seal your criminal records after an expungement. Expunged records are still accessible to the public, although they indicate your willingness to make a fresh start. However, sealed records are not available to the public. Few law enforcement officials can only access them.

Find a California Criminal Lawyer Near Me

An arrest for petty theft might leave you confused and scared about the future. The mistake you made, or a false accusation could lead to consequences such as jail time and a criminal record that may affect employment, professional licensing, and entry into the military. If you or your loved ones are facing charges for petty theft, or have related issue such as re-sentencing or expungement of criminal records, you need the guidance and representation of a lawyer.

The California Criminal Lawyer Group serves clients who need criminal defense services to fight the charges against petty theft. Reach us at 408-622-0204 for a free consultation. Our lawyers are familiar with California’s theft laws, the applicable defenses and have inside knowledge of how the courts and different prosecutors conduct their trials. We use this knowledge to fight for the best outcome in every case we handle.