Under California law Penal Code 484a and 488, it is against the law to take another person's property without their consent with the intent of depriving them of the property. For a petty theft crime, the value of property stolen must not exceed $950. There are many ways of committing petty theft, including physically depriving another person his/her property. You may also commit petty theft if you deprive another person a major part of the value and enjoyment of his or her property. You may also face petty theft charges for deceiving, tricking, or defrauding another person of his property. If you are facing petty theft charges, Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm can help you come up with a good defense.

Overview of Petty Theft

Under California law, petty theft is a misdemeanor offense. The penalties for petty theft cases may include jail time for a period not exceeding one year. The court may also recommend summary probation instead of jail time. For a petty theft offense, you may also pay fines that do not exceed $ 1,000. The common forms of Petty theft include:

Physically Carrying another Person's Property

Most cases of petty theft in California involve one party physically depriving another of their property.  To face charges, the prosecutor has to prove that you took property that belonged to another person. The prosecutor must further prove that you took the property without the consent/permission of the owner.

Other than taking the property, you must have the motive of stealing it to be guilty of petty theft. The prosecutor has to prove that you intended to keep the property away from the rightful owner permanently. You can still be guilty if it is evident that you intended to take away an item from its owner for a period long enough to make the owner misses a major part of the enjoyment or value of the property.

Finally, the prosecutor must prove that you moved the property from its initial location even if you just moved the property for a short distance and that you kept the property for some time, even a short period.

Petty Theft by False Pretense

 Under the California Penal Code 532, you can commit theft by false pretense if you purposely lie to or deceive a property owner with the intention of persuading them to allow you to possess or take ownership of their property. If a property owner believes your lies or depends on your false pretense and allows you to take possession of their property, you may face petty theft charges.

You can be guilty of false pretense if you knowingly give false information or carelessly stating that something is true without a proper basis of ascertaining it is true. You may also face false pretense charges if you make a promise that you do not intend to keep or withhold/ fail to give information when you are obligated to do so. 

You will only be guilty of theft by false pretense if the property owner relies on your false pretense/lies and gives you the property. If the property owners hand over the property to you for some other reasons, you may not face petty theft by false pretense charges.

Theft by false pretense cases requires some special evidence.  You cannot face a conviction unless the prosecutor provides proof of false pretense, which may include false writing that may comprise of fake documents, including identification documents. Evidence may also comprise of one witness in combination with another form of evidence or testimony from two witnesses or more. A memorandum or note of false pretense handwritten or signed by you may also serve as evidence.

 The requirement of tangible evidence of false pretense helps to prevent people from making false allegations of petty theft by false pretense. It is common for a person to accuse another falsely of theft by false pretense, especially if a business deal turns sour. The special evidence requirement for theft by false pretense cases helps to eliminate false allegations of theft.

Petty Theft by Trick

The California Penal Code Penal Code 484 outlines petty theft by trick.  You may be guilty of petty theft by a trick if you knowingly and purposely obtain property owned by another person after tricking him or her. Petty theft involves using deceit or fraud to make a property owner allows you to take possession of his/her property.

To face charges of petty theft by trick, it must be evident that on obtaining the property, you intended to permanently keep it away from the owner or permanently deprive the owner of the property. You might be guilty if you intend to keep the property for a considerable period; long enough to deprive the owner of the enjoyment or value of the property. The prosecutor has to prove that the property owner did not intend to transfer the property to you.

Most people often confuse petty theft by false pretense with petty theft by trick, but the two crimes are different. Under petty theft by trick, a property owner only allows the defendant to have possession of the property but not the ownership or formal property title. In a case of petty theft by false pretenses, a property owner may allow the defendant to have not only the possession of a property but also its formal title and ownership. 

Petty Theft by Embezzlement

Embezzlement is a common crime under California white-collar crimes. You can also commit petty theft by embezzlement. You may face petty theft by embezzlement if a property owner trusts you and gives you control of his property only for you to take or to use the property for your own benefit. To prove that you are guilty, the prosecutor must prove that when you took the property, you intended to deprive its rightful owner of the property use even for a short period.

If you take advantage of another person and make them suffer loss by breaching a duty of confidence and unlawfully using their property, you may face petty theft by embezzlement charges. In petty theft by embezzlement cases, you cannot defend yourself by arguing that you eventually intended to return the property taken.  You are guilty of theft even if you temporarily take property entrusted to you.

For example, Stephen is an accountant in a small firm, and the firm's owner has entrusted him with control of all bank accounts. Stephen realizes that he is behind in his loan payments and takes $400 from the company's account to pay the loan and later return the money to the company. Even if Stephen intended to return the money, he might still face petty theft by embezzlement charges as the firm's owner had entrusted him with the management of finances but Stephen abused the trust and took some money for personal use. Stephen would still be guilty even if he had only taken the money for a short period. 

Can You Face Petty Theft Charges if You Shoplift Items worth Less than $ 950?

Under California law, shoplifting is a distinct crime as outlined under Penal Code 459.5 PC. It entails accessing a commercial establishment such as a shopping mall and during regular working hours when the establishment is operational and shoplifting items worth $950 or less.

In November 2014, shoplifting became a distinct crime in California as part of Proposition 14. Before the passing of Proposition 47, shoplifting was a crime under California's Burglary law. Currently, a shoplifting offense may attract charges under petty theft or shoplifting depending on the nature of the offense. If you shoplift items that do not exceed the cost of $950, you face petty theft charges under California Penal Code PC 488.

Under the California Penal Code 459.5 PC shoplifting, you may face charges even if you did not succeed in shoplifting but only attempted to. It is important to note that in petty theft cases, you must execute the shoplifting to face charges while in shoplifting cases, your act of entering a store intending to shoplift is punishable by law.  You can only face petty theft charges under 488 PC or shoplifting charges under 459.5 PC, but you cannot face a combination of both charges.  In most cases, the penalties for charges under Penal Code 488 PC and Penal Code 459.5 PC are similar. 

Determining the Value of Property in Theft Cases

In California theft cases, the value of property stolen determines whether the defendant faces petty theft or grand theft charges. Therefore, courts and prosecutors must establish the value of stolen property to enable them to assign the proper charges to a defendant.

Both courts and prosecutors use the fair market value to determine the value of a stolen property. This refers to the highest price that an item would reasonably fetch if it is sold in an open market at the place where the item was stolen.

In some instances, it is easy to establish the fair market value of an item. For instance, if you shoplift jewelry worth $600 from a store, it is easy to assign petty theft charges as the item is worth less than $950 and the price of the item is obvious.

If you steal jewelry from another person's house, it may be difficult to determine the fair market value of the jewelry. This is especially the case if the jewelry is antique and the owner had acquired it many years ago. In such a case, determining the fair market value, which in turn helps determine if the defendant should face petty theft or grand theft charges, becomes a big issue. 

Penalties for California Petty Theft Charges

Under the California Penal Code 484 a, petty theft is a misdemeanor offense, and its penalties may include jail time not exceeding six months.

Instead of jail time, the court may recommend misdemeanor summary probation. This informal probation does not involve making regular visits to the probation office or regularly meeting with the probation officer. 

For a petty theft crime under California law, the court may require you to pay a fine not exceeding $1,000.  

Petty Theft with a Prior

You may face increased charges for a petty theft offense if you have a prior conviction of certain theft crimes as provided under the California Penal Code 666 PC.  Some of the prior convictions that may lead to increased petty theft charges include grand theft, petty theft, grand theft auto, robbery, carjacking, and burglary, among others. 

However, to face petty theft with prior charges, you have to meet some other requirements other than having a prior conviction of theft. If your prior theft charges involved defrauding, embezzling from, or stealing from an elderly person, under California Elder abuse law, you directly face petty theft with prior charges.

You may also qualify for petty theft with a prior charge if you have one prior conviction of sex crime that may require you to register under California's Sex Offender Registration Law. You may also face automatic petty theft with a prior charge if you had previously faced a conviction of a serious or violent felony.

Some of the serious felonies that may lead to petty theft with a prior conviction may include sexual offenses conducted though violence, sexual crimes against a minor under 14 years, possession of a weapon of mass destruction, and solicitation to murder other serious crimes.

Usually, the prosecutor may prove that you have a prior conviction during your petty theft trial. However, in some instances, the prosecutor may request a different hearing, often called a bifurcated trial. In the case of a bifurcated trial, you would have two trials handled by two jurors; in the first trial, the prosecutor proves that you are guilty of petty theft while in the second trial, he/she proves that you have a prior conviction.

Effect of Proposition 47 on California Petty Theft with a Prior

Before the passage of Proposition 47 in November 2014, petty theft with a prior law was punitive. People would face petty theft with a prior charge if they accumulated three previous theft offenses for which they had served time in jail.

The law did not require defendants to have additional crimes like elder abuse or sex crimes to qualify for petty theft with a prior. When California voters passed Proposition 47, petty theft with a prior under California Penal Code 666 became less severe.

People convicted of petty theft with a prior under the old law may appeal to have their conviction converted into a misdemeanor, and their charges may reduce significantly.

Penalties for Petty Theft with a Prior in California

Under California law, petty theft with a prior is a wobbler offense. After committing the crime, you may face misdemeanor or felony charges. Whether the prosecutor charges you with a misdemeanor or a felony may depend on several factors, including your criminal history and the facts surrounding your case.

For a misdemeanor offense, you may serve up to one year in county jail. A felony petty theft with a prior may earn you sixteen months, two years, or three years in a California state prison.

How Can You Keep Petty Theft Charges Off your Record?

You can keep petty theft charges off your criminal record by negotiating for charge reduction or taking advantage of diversion programs.

For a first California petty theft conviction where the defendant does not have a prior theft crime conviction and the petty theft crime involves an item worth less than $50, your attorney may negotiate for a reduction of your cases. Instead of facing misdemeanor charges, the attorney may reduce your charges to an infraction, which is a less serious offense under California law.  For an infraction offense, the maximum applicable fine is $250. 

You can take part in a petty theft diversion program for a first time petty theft offense where the value of items stolen exceeds $50. In an informal diversion, your attorney may negotiate with the prosecutor and request the prosecutor to keep the offense off your record. On the other hand, you have to honor the conditions of the diversion. For instance, after the dismissal of your petty theft charges, you may be required to attend anti-theft classes. You may also have to complete a certain number of community service hours. Another condition of petty theft charges diversion may include repaying the full value of the items you stole. 

Legal Defenses for California Petty Theft Charges

A conviction for California petty theft charges may subject you to unexpected penalties. The good news is that with the help of an attorney, you can challenge the prosecutor's allegations in court. Some of the common defenses for California Petty theft charges include:

Lack of Intent to Steal

One element of California petty theft is the intent to steal or deprive a property owner of his/her property. Therefore, you cannot face petty theft charges if it is clear that you had no intention to steal. For example, if your attorney can prove in court that you had no intention to steal, but you were absent-minded at the time of committing the offense, you may walk free.

A lack of intent to steal is a common defense strategy mainly adopted in shoplifting cases. For instance, you may assert that you forgot to pay for an item and you did not intend to steal.

It is common to get distracted while shopping, especially while talking on the phone or in case of an emergency. You may walk out of a store with some unpaid for items without even realizing it. If you face petty theft charges, you may point out that it was a mistake. 

You Assumed the Property/Item Belonged to You

If you took some property or items with the belief that they belonged to you only to face petty theft charges, you could assert that you thought the property or the item belonged to you.  You could not be guilty of petty theft if you acted honestly and in good faith.

Consent of Property Owner

You could fight petty theft charges under Penal Code 488 PC if you had the consent of the property owner while taking the property/item. For instance, a person may consent to give you some money or other property only for them to change their mind and accused of petty theft. You can state that the owner had willingly given you the money/property.

However, your usage of the property must be within the scope of the consent of the property owner. For instance, your boss gives you the company car to run an errand. You decide to take the card home overnight. If your boss sues you, you may face petty theft charges because even if your boss had allowed you to use the company car, he/she had not allowed you to take the car home overnight.

The consent of the property owner might not serve as a valid defense if you had gained the consent through a false pretense of trick.

False Accusation

Many people face false accusations of petty theft. After a wrongful arrest and false petty theft charges, you can prepare a defense to prove in court that you were falsely accused.

Defense against Prior Convictions

For petty theft with a prior conviction, you may fight/challenge the prior convictions in court. Prosecutors tend to be overzealous and may accuse of crimes that you did not commute. Your attorney can assist by going through the records of your previous convictions to verify the facts of your prior cases. 

At times, it may be beneficial to bifurcate your trial into two separate trials. You can have two juries listening to the case. One jury listens to your prior convictions, while the other jury listens to your current petty theft charges. This may work to your advantage as having only one jury listening to both your prior convictions and current charges may lead to biased judgment.   If a judge listens to your prior convictions, he/she may consider you seasoned criminal and unfairly convict you on your current petty theft case. 

Contact an Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm Near Me

Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm can help you develop a good defense strategy to enable you to fight your petty theft charges. Contact us at 714-740-7848 and speak to one of our attorneys. We will represent you aggressively until the end of your case.