The word “theft” is a term that is now broadly used to cover a variety of situations that have one common denominator: property has been taken without the owner’s permission. However, unless they are involved with the legal system in some way, most people are unaware of the actual legal definition of the term until the laws surrounding it affect them directly. In fact, theft—commonly referred to as larceny in the legal field—can be divided into two major categories. If you have been charged with theft, it is essential to understand the term and how it pertains to your case.

What Is Theft?

Theft, or larceny, can be described in a multitude of ways. In general, California statutes define theft as the act of unlawfully taking or using property owned by another person or entity with the intent of permanently depriving them of it. As mentioned, theft falls under one of two categories. These categories include petty theft and grand theft.

A variety of distinct aspects are taken into consideration when characterizing a crime as either petty theft or grand theft. If you were charged with either, it is vital that you seek legal counsel to represent you.

Petty Theft

Petty theft is the act of unlawfully obtaining property below a monetary value unique to each state. In California, petty theft is defined as the theft of most types of property valued at $950 and under. Petty theft is classified as a misdemeanor in California and most other states but can quickly evolve into multiple misdemeanors or a felony if the value of the stolen items is increased or certain types of property are involved. The maximum penalty for someone charged with petty theft is six months incarceration as well as a maximum fine of $1,000.

Many people do not realize the wide variety of situations that are considered petty theft. In fact, petty theft also includes theft under false pretenses as well as theft by embezzlement. As a result, petty theft can include acts like:

  • Stealing a piece of clothing from a store
  • Switching price tags
  • “Dining and Dashing,” or eating at a restaurant and then leaving without paying
  • Sneaking into an amusement park without paying
  • “Borrowing” something of value to someone and purposely not giving it back
  • Falsifying cash register reports and skimming the profits

While this list is certainly not complete, in each of the situations listed above, one defendant fraudulently obtained property owned by another individual without the intent of returning it or used services without the intent of paying.

Grand Theft

Grand theft, on the other hand, is a much more serious offense than petty theft and can result in serious consequences and jail time. Grand theft is the act of stealing property over the state’s threshold—in this case $950. As a result, if an individual commits grand theft, jail time and fines are increased accordingly. Whether the charges constitute a misdemeanor or a felony depends on what was stolen and the total valuation of the property.

Grand theft consists of most major instances of theft, including stealing expensive property from a person or a retail store. Common examples of grand theft include:

  • Stealing a computer, laptop, or iPhone from a person or business
  • Stealing expensive jewelry valued at over $950
  • Stealing a wallet full of cash and credit cards
  • Embezzling more than $950 from a place of employment

It is important to note that, while value is a major part of distinguishing petty theft and grand theft, there are a few cases where the value of the property in question does not matter. Stealing a car, a firearm or other certain types of property is always considered grand theft, regardless of value. In some states, even farm animals will trigger grand theft charges.

How Is Property Valued in Theft Cases?

Unless firearms or automobiles are involved, the value of the property stolen is the most critical factor that determines whether a crime is considered petty theft or grand theft. As a result, it is crucial for the courts to correctly value the objects or property in question. An incorrect valuation can result in unfair charges and undeserved penalties.

The value of the stolen property can be assessed in a few different ways. Most often, both attorneys will calculate the average market price or the object’s retail value. Expert witnesses may be necessary to provide a statement regarding the assessed value of the property.

Possible Penalties

Though every case is different, California courts can assess multiple penalties for both petty theft and grand theft. Your attorney can discuss each of these with you, so you know what to anticipate when your court date arrives:

  • Fines. In many petty theft cases, the person charged may not have to serve jail time but will be assessed a fine instead. This depends on the circumstances of the theft, the type of property that was stolen, as well as its overall value. Because petty theft is a misdemeanor, fines are under $1,000. With misdemeanor grand theft, fines are a similar $1,000 but felony grand theft can result in fines of up to $10,000.
  • Jail time. Jail time for misdemeanor petty theft is six months at most. However, if you are charged with grand theft, your jail sentence can potentially be much longer. Misdemeanor grand theft results in a maximum sentence of one year. Felony grand theft can result in up to three years in state prison.
  • Probation. Probation is also a possible penalty for someone charged with petty theft or grand theft in the state of California. For misdemeanor petty theft and misdemeanor grand theft, probation can serve as a replacement for jail time or may occur after release. Misdemeanor theft can result in one to three years’ probation. Felony grand theft can lead to between three and five years of probation. However, probation is not an option if the value of the items stolen is over $100,000.
  • Restitution. Defined as the process of paying back the owner of stolen property, restitution is considered separate from fines assessed to the defendant. Fines are paid to the state and federal governments, whereas restitution payments go directly to the owner of the stolen property.

Representation for Theft in Riverside

If you have been charged with petty or grand theft, securing the services of an experienced Riverside criminal defense attorney is crucial. The Law Offices of Schwartz & Godbey can help you understand your rights, accurately assess the charges and valuations your case involves, and craft a rigorous defense against your charges. If you or someone you know have been charged with theft in the Riverside area, contact us today to see how we can fight for you.