Why You Need Legal Counsel for a Petty Theft Charge

Many people may hear the term “petty theft” and believe this is a minor criminal charge that does not require a criminal defense lawyer’s attention. The reality is that it is crucial not to misconstrue the meaning of the word “petty” and assume this would be a criminal charge you could handle on your own. Petty theft charges in California fall under California Penal Code 484 PC, which defines petty theft as the unlawful taking or stealing of another person’s property valued at $950 or less. Suppose the property stolen exceeds $950 in value. In that case, the charge escalates to grand theft, and certain types of property, such as firearms, automatically qualify for grand theft charges even if their value does not exceed $950.

An experienced Riverside theft attorney is your best asset if you have been arrested for petty theft in the Riverside, CA, area. Although this may seem like a minor charge at first, the penalties for petty theft can be quite significant and create a criminal record that will complicate your life in several ways. It’s vital for anyone in this position to understand the severity of petty theft charges under California law and what they should do to defend themselves from prosecution.

What to Expect From a Petty Theft Arrest

Most petty theft cases begin when someone catches an individual stealing. Either the police discover the activity, or the victim or a witness of the crime reports the incident to the police. Once the police conduct an investigation and identify a suspect, they will move to arrest them. If you are arrested for petty theft, either at the scene of the crime or after the fact, it’s vital to remember your constitutional rights.

Police officers must uphold the law in good faith, meaning they must read a suspect their Miranda rights during the actual arrest. Miranda rights include the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Additionally, the arresting officer must inform the suspect that anything they say can and will be used against them in a court of law.

It is vital for anyone arrested for petty theft in California to take full advantage of these rights, even if they are wrongfully arrested and feel compelled to prove their innocence to avoid arrest. Noncompliance with police officers can escalate very quickly and lead to additional charges, such as resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, or interference with police business.

Once arrested, the arresting officers will transport the suspect to the local police precinct for booking. The suspect can expect the police to take an official arrest photo at the police station, commonly referred to as a “mugshot,” and record their fingerprints. The arresting officers will also process any physical evidence recovered from the scene of the arrest, typically including the stolen property in question.

What Happens When You Go to Court for Petty Theft?

Once booked, the suspect will remain in custody until their arraignment. This is the first of several court hearings the suspect should expect to face in the near future. An arraignment is simply a formal reading of the charges against the suspect and an opportunity for the suspect to enter a preliminary plea. The judge will also notify the defendant of the penalties that will follow a guilty plea. If the suspect pleads guilty, the case will move to sentencing. The suspect may remain in custody or, if granted bail, will be released under the condition they appear for their sentencing hearing.

If the suspect pleads not guilty, a trial will ensue. The standard of proof required for criminal conviction in California is guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This requires a jury of the defendant’s peers to agree unanimously to a guilty verdict.

Potential Penalties for Petty Theft in California

Petty theft qualifies as a misdemeanor under California’s Penal Code. While not as severe as a felony charge one might receive for grand theft, California’s penalties for petty theft are still significant. California allows for a sentence of up to six months of incarceration and fines up to $1,000 for a conviction of petty theft. However, a judge may be willing to reduce the defendant’s penalty to summary probation under certain circumstances, such as a first criminal offense.

A record of petty theft can have serious repercussions on the defendant’s life. For example, it would be challenging for them to secure future employment in any business in which theft can occur, such as a retail store, distributor, or manufacturing center. Their criminal record may also interfere with their ability to obtain housing in certain areas, qualify for financing, or obtain higher education financial aid.

It is also likely for a defendant convicted of petty theft to face restitution to the victim, typically including returning of the property in question, repaying the owner for the value of the stolen property, and additional damages in the event the petty theft resulted in further losses to the victim. The defendant may also face mandatory theft classes and community services. Ultimately, the penalties for petty theft in California may be much more severe than you initially expect. It is vital to defend yourself against a petty theft charge to the fullest extent possible with an experienced Riverside theft attorney.

Further Clarification for Petty Theft Charges

Some petty theft cases involve multiple pieces of stolen property. Generally, if the suspect took these items from the same owner or in the course of a single intent, plan, or impulse, then the total combined value of all items would be considered when determining whether the suspect committed petty theft. In other cases, the suspect would likely face separate charges for each item stolen. Consider a few possible situations to understand this distinction more clearly:

  • The suspect took three items from the same store, valued at $30, $100, and $300. The combined total value of these items would be $430, below the $950 threshold for petty theft, and they took them at the same approximate time from the same place. This offense would qualify as a single charge of petty theft.
  • The suspect took three items from the same store, valued at $100, $400, and $500. Because the three items’ combined total is $1,000, exceeding the $950 threshold for petty theft, the suspect would not face three petty theft charges and instead face a charge of grand theft.
  • The suspect attended a party and took smartphones out of three separate partygoer’s bags. Each phone’s value is between $500 and $800. Because the suspect took property from three separate people, and each phone would be below the $950 threshold for petty theft, this would constitute three charges of petty theft even though the combined value of the three phones would exceed $950.

These examples should further clarify how California prosecutors approach petty theft cases. It is also important to understand the different ways in which petty theft may occur. Petty theft does not always mean the stealing of physical property, and it does not always mean shoplifting or physically stealing an item from someone else:

  • Theft by larceny describes the physical taking of another person’s property without their consent with the intent to deprive the owner of the property. Intent to use the property or potential for personal gain is irrelevant in these situations. For example, the defendant could not claim they had no intention of using the property as an affirmative defense.
  • Theft by trick describes the taking of another person’s property by fraud or deception. This could include asking to borrow another person’s property without any intention of returning it or otherwise deceiving a property owner in some way to deprive them of their property.
  • Theft by embezzlement describes the taking of property from one’s employer. Prosecution of petty theft by embezzlement requires proving the property’s owner entrusted the property to the defendant and did so because they trusted the defendant, the defendant fraudulently took, used, or consumed the property for their own benefit, and did so with the intent to deprive the owner of the property, even temporarily.
  • Theft by fraud or false pretense is similar to theft by trick. A prerequisite of prosecution of petty theft by fraud or false pretense is proving that the defendant persuaded the property owner in question to give the defendant said property under false pretenses. Making a promise the defendant doesn’t intend to fulfill or claiming false or unconfirmed information in an attempt to persuade the property owner would constitute petty theft by fraud or false pretense.

While petty theft can occur in many ways, the main determining factor the prosecution will consider in determining whether an offense qualifies as petty theft is the value of the property taken. $950 remains the threshold for petty theft regardless of how the property was stolen.

Should I Get a Lawyer for Petty Theft?

A criminal defense attorney’s job is to help their client avoid conviction if at all possible or minimize their sentence as much as possible when acquittal is not an option. When you secure legal counsel from an experienced Riverside theft attorney, you should expect the attorney to help you explore all available defenses in your situation.

One of the first ways an excellent criminal defense lawyer can assist you is by examining the conditions of your arrest. If the police violated your constitutional rights, failed to uphold due process, or otherwise failed to conduct a lawful arrest under the laws of due process, this may be enough to have your case dropped.

Another potential avenue for defense is providing an affirmative defense. California law upholds several possible defenses against a charge of petty theft, including the owner’s consent, assertion of ownership, or miscommunication regarding the borrowing of the property in question. You should expect your Riverside theft attorney to closely examine the details of your case, your relationship, if any, to the owner of the stolen property in question, and whether you have any legal claim to ownership of the property in question.

Understanding Defenses Against Petty Theft Charges

Your Riverside theft attorney will help you determine whether you have a viable affirmative defense available in your case. For example, if you had the owner’s consent to take the property in question and the owner wrongfully accused you of stealing their property, your attorney would help you uncover all available evidence that would prove you had the owner’s consent to take the property in question.

If you borrowed the property in question with the intent to return it, this would nullify the prosecutorial requirement of “intent to deprive.” However, this defense is often shaky because the law requires the borrowed property to be returned within a “reasonable time.” Typically, when one person allows another to borrow their property, the two parties agree upon a reasonable time when the borrower is expected to return the property.

It is also possible to provide a defense with a claim of right to ownership of the property. The defense may assert that the accused believed they had a right of ownership to the property, even if this belief is unreasonable or mistaken. These situations may be resolved by clarifying miscommunication between the alleged owner and the alleged defendant but are more difficult to resolve when a petty theft case escalates to formal legal proceedings against the accused.

Find Your Defense Team Today

Facing any criminal charge can be a distressing experience, especially if you have been wrongfully accused. Regardless of whether you believe you are guilty of the charges against you, reliable legal counsel is your best asset in this situation. A petty theft conviction can negatively impact your life in many ways for years to come. If your situation involves miscommunication, mistaken identity, or other extenuating circumstances, it’s vital to consult a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible after your arrest.

The Law Offices of Schwartz & Godbey provide a full range of criminal defense services, including legal representation for those facing conviction for petty theft. Our firm will carefully review the case against you, evaluate the conditions of your arrest, and help you formulate the best possible defense against the charges you face. If you or a loved one were arrested in Riverside for petty theft, it’s vital to secure criminal defense counsel as soon as possible. Contact the Law Offices of Schwartz & Godbey today to schedule a consultation with an experienced Riverside theft attorney.