Petty Theft Charges in California
- Penal Code §484 -
Petty Theft – PC 484
Petty theft is one of the most common criminal charges in California. In recent years, petty theft charges have increased as a result of stores like Walmart, Home Depot, and Target aggressively monitoring visitors via cameras and undercover employees.
While petty theft can only be charged as a misdemeanor or infraction, criminal charges should never be taken lightly. Petty theft charges can have life altering consequences if not handled properly.
The following information is intended to provide a general understanding of petty theft charges in California. However, it is always recommended that someone charged with petty theft contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer at JPLaw, P.C. as soon as possible.
Theft is criminalized pursuant to California Penal Code §484. Theft is the unlawful taking of personal property of another with the intent to permanently deprive the other person of the property.
There are two degrees of theft charges; grand theft and petty theft. Grand theft is a theft of property that is valued at more than $950. Petty theft is a theft of property that is valued at $950 or less.
Where the value of the property taken is between $50 and $950, petty theft can only be charged as a misdemeanor crime. If the value of the property was for less than $50, the prosecutor has the option of filing the case as a misdemeanor or an infraction.
1. Can you be arrested for petty theft?
Yes, you can be arrested for petty theft in California.
Ordinarily, an officer only has authority to arrest someone without a warrant if (1) a misdemeanor was committed in the presence of the officer, (2) a felony was committed, whether or not it is in the presence of the officer, or (3) the officer has probable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a felony.
Since petty theft is a misdemeanor offense in California, an officer has authority to arrest someone for petty theft if the officer has a warrant for the person’s arrest or if the theft was committed in the presence of the officer.
That said, most incidents of petty theft aren’t committed in the presence of an officer, and it is highly unusual for an officer to go through all the steps of getting a warrant before arresting a suspect.
If the suspect leaves the store, the officer usually just issues the suspect a citation for petty theft charges with a notice to appear in court for the criminal proceedings.
However, a store employee can also ask the officer to take the person into custody under the employees right to make a citizen’s arrest. A private person may make a citizen’s arrest for any offense that is committed or attempted in his presence.
Police officers do not have unlimited authority to arrest people. Officers must comply with the rules governing arrests contained in the California Penal Code.
A store will usually only try and detain someone if they are certain that a crime has been committed, though. If a person wrongly believes a crime has been committed, then they could be subject to liability for making a false arrest.
2. What are the elements of petty theft?
In every criminal case the jury is required to find that the defendant committed every component of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The components of a crime are called elements.
The prosecutor has the burden of proving every element of the crime. To be convicted of petty theft, the prosecutor must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
The defendant took possession of property owned by someone else;
The defendant took the property without the owner’s consent;
When the defendant took the property, he intended to permanently deprive the owner of the property; AND
The defendant moved the property, even a small distance, and kept it for any period of time, however brief.
If even a single juror has reasonable doubt as to whether the defendant completed any one of the elements, the defendant cannot be convicted of petty theft.
3. What are the penalties for petty theft?
As previously mentioned, petty theft can be charged as either a misdemeanor or an infraction. A misdemeanor is a mid-tier crime in California and is punishable by jail time. An infraction is the lowest level criminal violation and is punishable only by a fine.
It is up to the prosecutor what level petty theft charges to file against the defendant. But a prosecutor will almost always file misdemeanor charges for committing a petty theft. Even when they can elect to file the case as an infraction, they will choose not to.
This is done so they can use the possibility of reducing the charge as a bargaining tool to get the defendant to plead guilty.
Penalties for petty theft as an infraction –
A defendant convicted of petty theft as an infraction is punishable by a fine not to exceed $250. However, the court will also add court costs and penalty assessment to the base fine of $250. The total amount comes out to approximately $700.
Penalties for petty theft as a misdemeanor –
A person convicted of misdemeanor petty theft is subject to the following possible punishment:
Imprisonment in the county jail for up to 6-months,
A fine of up to $1000, OR
Both that fine and imprisonment.
Probation for misdemeanor petty theft –
A court may place a defendant convicted of petty theft on probation. Probation is a form of leniency by the court and is left to the discretion of the sentencing judge.
Probation can be either formal or informal and can last no more than 12-months from the date the defendant is sentenced. While on probation the defendant is expected to comply with all of the terms of their probation.
Failure to comply with the terms of probation can result in the court revoking the defendant’s probation and sentencing the defendant to the maximum punishment for petty theft, which is listed above.
Most defendants convicted of petty theft are not sentenced to jail. The court will ordinarily grant probation, unless the defendant has a history of similar offenses.
Some of the usual terms of probation for misdemeanor petty theft include:
Paying a fine
Completion of a theft course
Community service or community labor
An order to pay restitution for any property that was not recoverable
An order to stay away from the store or place where the theft was committed
An order that the defendant not commit any new law violations
4. Does a conviction for petty theft go on your record?
Yes, a conviction for petty theft will create a criminal record. Even just an arrest or citation for petty theft can create a criminal record that lists the date of the incident and the charges that were alleged.
A criminal record, sometimes called a RAP (records of arrest and prosecution) sheet is a formal list of prior arrests and convictions. In California these records are maintained by the state’s department of justice.
While the law provides that access to criminal records maintained by the DOJ is limited to legitimate law enforcement purposes and authorized applicants, criminal records can have far greater consequences. A criminal record can prevent or limit your ability to find housing or employment depending on the circumstances of the record.
It is always best to avoid a criminal conviction, if possible. However, a conviction for petty theft is eligible for expungement and the records can be sealed later down the road. Learn more about how JPLaw, P.C. can help clean your criminal record.
5. What is the difference between petty theft and shoplifting?
Shoplifting is defined by California Penal Code §459.5 as entering a commercial establishment during regular business hours with the intent to commit a theft where the value of the property that is taken or intended to be taken does not exceed $950.
While petty theft and shoplifting are similar in that they both deal with theft of property valued at $950 or less, there are some important differences between the two.
You Don't Have to Actually Take Something to Commit Shoplifting –
The first important difference between shoplifting and petty theft is that shoplifting doesn’t require that anything actually be taken before you have committed the crime of shoplifting. A person can be convicted of shoplifting simply by entering the store if their intent in entering was to steal something.
A person enters a store if any part of his or her body crosses the outer boundary of the store. Even if the person doesn’t physically cross the boundary, the law considers he or she to have entered the store if any object under the person’s control passes the structure’s outer boundary.
Shoplifting Can Only Be Committed in a Commercial Establishment –
The second major difference between the two is that shoplifting can only be committed in a commercial establishment. A commercial establishment, as you may assume, includes retail stores, grocery stores, warehouse stores, and the like. But it can also include much more.
A commercial establishment has been defined as a place “that is primarily engaged in commerce, that is, the buying and selling of goods or services.” The definition of commercial establishment is very broad and can include banks, mobile home venders, and car dealerships.
Petty theft, on the other hand, requires that the person carry away the property and can be property belonging to anyone. Consider the following example:
Two neighbors are gardening in their respective yards. After a long day’s work Neighbor 1 goes inside for the night but leaves one of her gardening tools worth $500 laying out. Upon realizing Neighbor 1’s mistake, Neighbor 2 grabs the tool and declares it his and stores it in his shed for safe keeping.
Neighbor 2 has committed a petty theft against Neighbor 1 because he carried the tool from the yard to his shed and intended to keep the tool for himself. This would not be considered shoplifting, though. Neighbor 2 never entered a commercial establishment in taking the tool.
6. What are some common defenses to petty theft charges?
There are many defenses a good criminal defense lawyer can use to defend someone charged with petty theft for violating PC 484. Consider the following common defenses:
No Intent To Steal –
Petty theft is a “specific intent” crime, as opposed to a “general intent” crime. As such, the defendant must both intentionally commit the act of taking the property AND specifically intend to permanently deprive the other person of the property.
This defense is particularly useful to a defendant that was unaware that the property had been taken. For example, consider the neighbors in the example above.
Neighbor 2 had intentionally taken the gardening tool because he was aware of what he was doing when moving the tool. He also had the intent to permanently deprive Neighbor 1 of the tool, which was evidenced by his declaration that the tool now belonged to him.
Now consider the same scenario, except that Neighbor 2 picked up the tool without realizing it belonged to Neighbor 1. Since Neighbor 2 is under the mistaken belief that the tool was his, he has not committed a petty theft.
You Were the True Owner of the Property –
Another common defense to petty theft is that the defendant is the true owner of the property. This defense often comes up when there is a dispute over ownership of the property.
Petty theft requires that you take the personal property of another with the intent to deprive that person of their property. Therefore, you cannot legally be convicted for petty theft if you can demonstrate that the property actually belongs to you.
Consent to Take the Property –
A defendant can also fight their petty theft case by showing that the owner consented to the defendant taking the property. This defense often comes up when an agent of the owner is not aware that the owner had granted the defendant consent to take the property.
Judicial Diversion Pursuant to Penal Code §1001.95 –
A defendant charged with petty theft can also request that the court grant judicial diversion pursuant to Penal Code §1001.95.
Judicial diversion is like probation in that the defendant is ordered to perform certain tasks and complete certain terms. But, unlike probation, a defendant who participates in judicial diversion avoids a record of conviction because they don’t have to plead guilty before participating.
Judicial diversion is normally reserved for people with little to no criminal history. The law is aimed at helping defendants avoid the collateral consequences of a criminal record. Visit the dedicated judicial diversion page to read more about how judicial diversion may be beneficial to you.
It is important to remember that every situation is different. If you or someone you love has been charged with petty theft for allegedly violating PC 484, it is imperative that you contact an experienced and knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer at JPLaw, P.C. as soon as possible.
Contact An Orange County Criminal Defense Lawyer
John-Patrick Mullen-Lujan is a trusted Orange County criminal theft defense lawyer that prides himself on his ability to communicate with clients as he helps them navigate our complex criminal justice system.
Attorney Mullen-Lujan was named one of the Best Criminal Defense Lawyers in Orange and Newport Beach. Hire an attorney you can trust and who can provide the zealous advocacy you need.
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