In the state of California, theft (or “larceny”) is defined as illegally taking another person’s money or property. Depending on the nature and value of the stolen property, a theft in California will be charged as a “petty” theft or larceny or as a “grand” theft or larceny.

What’s the distinction? And what distinguishes theft from robbery or burglary? What are the penalties for theft in California?

And where can you turn if you are charged – rightly or wrongly – with committing a theft in this state?

HOW ARE ROBBERY, THEFT, AND BURGLARY DISTINCT?

Theft, robbery, and burglary refer to three different crimes in California, although a conviction for any of these charges could put a defendant behind bars.

In a general sense, robbery involves force or the threat of force, while burglary involves sneaking or breaking into a building or vehicle. Robbery and burglary each add an additional element to the basic crime of theft.

WHAT IS PETTY THEFT IN CALIFORNIA?

How is petty theft defined by state law?

Taking another person’s cash or property valued at under $950 is petty theft in California. Petty theft is a misdemeanor.

Many of the petty theft crimes in southern California are shoplifting incidents. The maximum penalty for a first petty theft conviction is six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

A second petty theft charge is considered much more serious, and at a prosecutor’s discretion, a second charge may be filed as a felony (“Petty theft with a prior”).

WHAT IS GRAND THEFT IN CALIFORNIA?

Grand theft in California is the theft of cash or property valued above $950. A California prosecutor may elect to charge grand theft as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

A misdemeanor grand theft conviction can send a defendant to jail for a year. If the grand theft is charged as a felony, a conviction is punishable with a three-year sentence to a California state prison.

Before the voters approved Proposition 47 in 2014, all firearm and vehicle thefts in California were considered grand thefts, but since 2014, grand theft is charged in these cases only if the firearm or vehicle in question is valued at or above $950.

IF YOU ARE ACCUSED OF THEFT, WHERE CAN YOU TURN FOR HELP?

If you are charged with any theft in southern California, it is imperative for you to be advised and represented by an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney. You’ll need to reach out to that attorney at your very first opportunity after you’ve been arrested.

Many of the people accused of petty theft in California – and especially many of those charged with shoplifting – are in fact innocent.

Anyone can get distracted or confused, walk out of a store with an item, and forget to pay. You could even be accused of shoplifting an item that is in fact already your own property.

If you had no intention of shoplifting, and the item was immediately returned, a good defense lawyer may be able to have the petty theft charge dismissed.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN JOYRIDING AND GRAND THEFT AUTO?

When it comes to the theft of a motor vehicle in California, it’s not only the vehicle’s value that determines the charge, but it’s also the intention of the thief.

California law makes a distinction between grand theft auto and joyriding.

When a thief intends to deprive a vehicle’s owner permanently – and perhaps sell the vehicle or vehicle parts – if the vehicle is valued at or above $950, the charge is grand theft auto.

But when a car thief does not necessarily intend to deprive an owner permanently of a vehicle, the charge is joyriding.

While both charges are in fact “wobblers” – meaning that a prosecutor has the discretion to file either charge as a felony or as a misdemeanor – the reality is that joyriding almost always triggers a misdemeanor charge, while grand theft auto will almost certainly be a felony charge.

WHAT IS THE LAW REGARDING THE POSSESSION OF STOLEN PROPERTY?

The possession of stolen property is another “wobbler” charge in California.

A conviction for the felony possession of stolen property can put a defendant in a California prison for three years and generate a $10,000 fine. A conviction for the misdemeanor possession of stolen property can put a defendant in jail for a year and trigger a $1,000 fine.

What can happen if someone is charged with one of these theft crimes in California, and that person is innocent? It happens far too frequently in our state.

HOW CAN YOU FIGHT A CRIMINAL THEFT CHARGE?

If you legitimately believed that an item of property was yours when you took it, and you can prove it, you’ll probably be acquitted of a theft charge, or the charge may be dismissed.

You may have been misidentified as a shoplifter or thief. And sometimes, theft stories are entirely fabricated. Just because you’ve been charged with theft, it doesn’t mean that you’re guilty or that you’ll be convicted.

“Don’t steal” seems like a very simple rule, but in California, as you’ve just learned, the laws governing robbery, burglary, and theft are complicated and sometimes quite confusing.

WHAT ARE THE FOUR WAYS THEFT IS CHARGED IN CALIFORNIA?

Along with the various robbery, burglary, and fraud charges available to prosecutors, even simple theft in California can be charged in four different ways:

1. Petty theft
2. Petty theft with a prior
3. Misdemeanor grand theft
4. Felony grand theft

If you are charged with any crime of theft in southern California – including embezzlement, fraud, or identity theft – you must arrange at once to be represented by a skilled criminal defense attorney.

HOW CAN A CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY HELP?

Your defense lawyer will protect your rights, explain your options, and advocate aggressively for the dismissal of charges or for your acquittal.

In theft cases where the evidence is conclusive, and a conviction is certain, your defense attorney may be able to negotiate an acceptable plea deal or arrange for reduced or alternative sentencing.

A conviction for theft has consequences beyond jail time and a fine. You’ll have a permanent criminal record, and employers are particularly reticent to hire – or to keep – anyone with a recent theft conviction.

As mentioned previously, wrongful theft accusations are not uncommon in the state of California. If you are charged with any kind of theft in this state, exercise your right to consult an attorney, and do it at once.