Stealing has a vast range of circumstances, and it can be baffling to think of the range of acts that fit under this one umbrella. Stealing something like a T-shirt or a candy bar is just as easily prosecuted as stealing a TV or a car. While many of us would never dream of stealing, it does happen with relative frequency. If you find yourself in a situation in which you or a loved one has stolen an item, whether on purpose or as an honest mistake, it is likely that your mind is reeling with the potential consequences of your actions, especially if you have been caught. It is helpful to understand the consequences for different levels of theft, what you can do if you are caught stealing, and how the consequences may change if you return the item you have taken.

Types of Theft

Before we discuss the idea of returning a stolen item, it is important to understand that, while theft is one large category, there are different levels of theft within that category. Logically, most of us know this; a person will not be equally punished for stealing a Milky Way as a Ferrari. In California, there are two levels of theft: petty theft and grand theft. Petty theft is categorized as stealing an item worth $950 or less. Grand theft is any stolen property over that amount. Generally, petty theft is punishable as a misdemeanor and can require up to six months in jail, depending on the person’s circumstances and history. Grand theft is what the law categorizes as “wobbly.” This means that grand theft can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Again, this depends upon the circumstances surrounding the theft, the person’s history, and their intention.

Returning a Stolen Item

Regardless of whether theft is considered petty theft or grand theft, there is a possibility of returning a stolen item after taking it. This can happen for a few reasons. Some include:

  • Not realizing that you have stolen an item, for example, finding something in the bottom of a shopping cart when you leave the store and returning it when you realize what you have done.
  • Feeling remorse for intentionally stealing an item and trying to right your wrong by returning the item to the store or its rightful owner.
  • Returning an item that has been stolen to receive cash or store credit in replacement for the stolen good.

All three situations are relatively common. Though they are all technically returning a stolen item to its rightful place, the consequences for each are vastly different.


The consequences of returning stolen goods vary so much because the law takes intent into account when looking at theft. For a theft to be prosecutable, the courts must establish that the person who stole the item had the intent to permanently take the item from its rightful owner (this includes stores as the owner of an item). If a person has intended to deprive the owner of their property indefinitely and without permission, the act is considered theft. If there was no intention, or if the court has any doubt that there was intent, the act cannot be classified as theft. This is why borrowing is different from stealing. If you borrow a book from a friend and forget to return it, this is not considered theft because you had not intended to keep the book when you took it.

Accidental Theft

Understanding the idea of intent, you can see how returning an item stolen by accident (i.e., left in the bottom of your shopping cart, grabbed by a young child when you weren’t looking, etc.) would not be considered stealing. It is doubtful that a store or individual would try to prosecute someone for returning something they took by accident. However, if you accidentally steal something and later realize that it has been stolen and neglect to bring the item back to its rightful owner, there is a possibility that you could be prosecuted. In this situation, they may be able to prove that you had the intent to keep the item after you realized it was stolen, which may lead to charges depending on the item. However, punishment would likely be lenient.

Returning an Item Due to Remorse

It is a different story when you consider situations where a person stole an item and then later felt badly and returned the item. In this instance, the original intent was still to permanently keep the item in question. Because intent is present, it is entirely possible to prosecute a person for stealing an item they later return. The return is irrelevant to the charges. The person took the item on purpose and permanently, and that is all the prosecution needs to know to seek justice. However, this does not mean that you should not return something that you have taken. If you return an item that you have stolen, you have a greater chance of a lighter sentence. The court will likely take your act of remorse into account and charge you accordingly. If you simply keep the item, the court will likely stick you with more strict theft punishments.

Returning an Item That Has Been Stolen

This category of theft is a bit varied. If you return something that was given to you and you are unaware that it was stolen, you will likely be questioned by law enforcement. If you can prove that you did not know that the item was stolen, it is unlikely that you will face any serious consequences. However, if you stole the item yourself or knew that the item was stolen and tried to return it for cash or store credit, your act is considered a crime. The theft will be categorized with the item at hand as either petty theft or grand theft and punished accordingly.

Burden of Proof

The responsibility to prove that someone has stolen an item with the intent to permanently keep it instead of borrowing it is placed on the prosecution. There are several ways that this can be done, depending on the circumstances. The most straightforward type of proof is incriminating evidence. For example, if you text a friend and tell them that you “borrowed” a new pair of jeans from the store, but it is obvious from the conversation that you are not going to bring the jeans back, the prosecution can use the messages as a form of proof that you did have the intent to steal. This is the most obvious way to prove that theft has occurred.

However, actions can be used as evidence as well. For example, if you borrow a family friend’s car for the weekend and then don’t bring it back after your friend repeatedly asks for it, the court will likely use this against you to prove that you had the intent to keep the car all along. If they can prove this, a theft can be classified.

There are situations in which actions can be used in your favor to prove that you meant to return the property from the beginning. For example, let’s say your neighbor leaves his grill outside and unlocked while he goes out of town, and you take it and use it. Your neighbor arrives home earlier than you expected and reports his grill missing to the police, and they find the grill in your yard. If you return the grill and explain the situation, it is entirely possible that no legal action will be taken. However, this depends on your relationship with your neighbor and his willingness to drop the charges. Technically, he would have the right to charge you with theft if he wanted to, though there likely would not be much of a case to hold up in court.

Lost Items

It is important to note one key aspect of California’s theft laws, and it is dealing with the handling of lost items. Under penal code 484, taking property that has been lost without first making a reasonable effort to find the owner is considered theft. While this may be difficult to prove, it certainly can be done, especially with increasing surveillance. Of course, it would be nearly impossible to track down the owner of a lost $20 bill or sunglasses, and it is unlikely that anyone would charge you if you kept those things anyway. However, it is important to know that if the person should discover that you took their lost item without an attempt to find its rightful owner, you could technically be charged. This is more of an issue with items like credit cards, wallets, cell phones, etc. It is much easier to find the owners for these items and much more reasonable that the law asks you to do so.

Punishments for Theft

The specific punishment you receive for stealing something depends on several factors. Your criminal history and the circumstances of the theft will likely come into play when deciding what specific sentence is appropriate. There are, however, a few general guidelines for both petty theft and grand theft that may give you an idea as to how you may be charged:

  • Petty theft is a misdemeanor that calls for up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
  • Shoplifting is a misdemeanor that calls for up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
  • Grand theft classified as a misdemeanor calls for a sentence of up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
  • Grand theft classified as a felony calls for a sentence of up to three years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

The punishments listed increase in severity according to the crime and are decided upon based on intent, proof, and whether the item was returned. Remember that if you return the item stolen, it is likely that the courts will look upon this act favorably and take your remorse into account during sentencing. However, they are within their rights to charge you the maximum sentence for your original crime, especially if you do not have a proper attorney to defend you.

Hire an Attorney

If you have stolen something, have been accused of stealing something that you only borrowed, or have been accused of stealing when you did not, it is time to hire an attorney. The punishments for theft are fairly severe and can alter the course of your entire life. Imagine stealing something as small as a bracelet or a pair of shoes and being put in jail for it. To avoid these charges and ensure that your charges accurately reflect your crime, you need a competent attorney to fight your case. While you technically are allowed to represent yourself or to utilize a public defender, it is in your best interest to hire an experienced attorney to work for you. By hiring an attorney, you ensure that your legal representation has time and resources to focus on your case and that he or she can help you receive the lightest possible sentence.

Why Catherine A. Schwartz?

For over 30 years, Catherine A. Schwartz and her colleagues have been serving the people of the Riverside community. Our firm holds a deep understanding of the laws in this area, and all of our attorneys know how to apply them with precision and appropriate force to each of our cases. We know that theft cases of any kind can be scary and that many people who find themselves fighting these charges never imagined they would be in this position. This is why we treat each of our clients to empathetic, understanding legal representation. We approach each case without judgment and do everything in our power to ensure that you are protected from unfair punishment or misunderstanding.

If you have been accused of petty theft, grand theft, or shoplifting, there is no time to waste. Contact the Law Offices of Schwartz & Godbey today.