Theft offenses of any type are extremely serious in California. From petty theft to grand theft to shoplifting, a theft conviction can leave you facing serious penalties, including monetary fines and significant jail time. In addition, if you sustain a criminal conviction, you may be looking at numerous collateral consequences that affect every aspect of your life, from attending school at the educational institution of your choice to finding a decent place to live.
The best way to avoid a theft conviction on your record is to avoid a criminal charge in the first place. Sometimes, if you hire a theft defense attorney in your area immediately after an arrest and accusation, your attorney can work with the prosecutor to avoid charges issued against you. However, if you ultimately incur a theft charge, you must speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney right away.
A knowledgeable lawyer can review the circumstances of your charge with you to determine if you might be eligible to assert one or more legal defenses to your charge. If a legal defense is successful in court, your theft charge may be subject to a complete dismissal. Alternatively, if you sustain a conviction on your charge, a lawyer can represent you at your sentencing hearing before a judge and argue for a fair and reasonable penalty.
Theft might seem like a relatively minor issue compared to other violent crimes or sex offenses, but the law takes theft very seriously. Never handle a theft charge without the proper defense representation, as your future is on the line. You cannot hide from a criminal charge, so reach out for defense help immediately.
What Is a Theft Offense?
State criminal statutes define theft as taking someone else’s property through embezzlement, false pretenses, or larceny. Moreover, for a prosecutor to successfully convict you of a theft offense, you must possess the necessary criminal intent. Specifically, you must intend to permanently deprive the true owner of their property. If you lacked the necessary criminal intent, your lawyer can raise that defense in response to your charge at trial.
The type of theft charges you ultimately face will depend upon the value of the property you allegedly stole. Your prior criminal history might also play a part in the specific criminal offense you face.
In California, larceny is intentionally taking and carrying away someone else’s property. False pretenses theft, on the other hand, is using false representations to take someone else’s property. Finally, an individual commits embezzlement when their possession of the property in question was initially lawful, but the accused individual later converted the subject property for unlawful use.
A prosecutor may also charge an individual with specific theft offenses, including:
- Trying to sell merchandise to a pawnbroker by falsifying information
- Diverting funds unlawfully for materials, labor, or services
- Unlawfully using or transferring a credit or debit card
- Converting lost property without making any effort to ascertain the identity of the true owner
- Defrauding a public housing assistance program
- Failing to return leased or rented property
A knowledgeable criminal defense attorney can aggressively defend you against any of these pending theft charges in court.
How Does California Classify Theft Offenses?
As with the criminal codes in many states, California classifies theft offenses based on the value of the property that the accused individual allegedly stole. The value of a particular piece of property is its fair market value. Concerning stolen services, the state looks at the ordinary contract price for the same or similar services—or a reasonable wage for the services in the geographical area where the theft occurred.
First, petty theft occurs when an individual takes property with a maximum monetary value of $950. In most instances, prosecutors charge petty thefts as misdemeanors. If the accused individual ultimately sustains a conviction, they can receive a maximum of six months of incarceration in a county jail and/or a maximum monetary fine of $1000.
In cases where the allegedly stolen property has a value of $50 or lower, the prosecutor may only charge the offense as an infraction. Upon conviction, the accused individual can only receive a maximum monetary fine of $250.
Petty theft is a wobbler offense since the state prosecutor may charge it as a misdemeanor or as a felony, depending upon the circumstances. If the offender has certain prior convictions on their record, such as for a registrable sex offense, the prosecutor can charge the offender with a felony.
If the prosecutor charges the offense as a misdemeanor, the accused individual can spend a maximum of one year in jail. However, if the prosecutor charges the offense as a felony, the accused individual can spend up to three years in jail.
Next, grand theft involves stealing property that has a value over $950—or stealing a firearm of any value. In cases where an individual is convicted, they can receive felony penalties, including up to a three-year jail term.
In other instances, theft is a wobbler that can result in felony or misdemeanor charges. If an individual incurs a misdemeanor conviction, they can receive a maximum of one year of incarceration. A felony conviction can lead to jail time of two or three years, depending on the circumstances.
Moreover, an individual can face criminal charges for looting if they commit a petty theft or grand theft offense during a state of emergency, local emergency, or ongoing evacuation.
The looting that involves grand theft, or stealing merchandise valued at more than $950, is a wobbler crime. If the state prosecutor charges the offense as a misdemeanor and the accused individual sustains a conviction, they can receive a maximum penalty of one year in jail. If the prosecutor brings the charge as a felony, the accused can receive up to three years of jail time.
Finally, an individual commits a shoplifting offense when they enter a store when the store is open, with the intent of stealing merchandise with a value of 950 dollars or less. In California, this offense is a misdemeanor. Therefore, if the accused individual sustains a conviction, they can be looking at a maximum of six months of incarceration.
In addition to these potential criminal penalties upon conviction, a shoplifter may also face civil penalties. For example, they may have to reimburse the store owner for the retail value of the stolen merchandise. In cases where the individual who commits the shoplifting offense is a minor child, the child’s parents may be civilly liable for these penalties.
Who Has the Legal Burden of Proof in a Theft Case?
In all criminal cases, including those that involve theft, the state prosecutor has the only legal burden of proof. Moreover, to obtain a conviction against the accused individual, the prosecutor needs to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. This can be an extremely high burden to overcome.
The defendant, or the individual facing the theft charge, does not need to prove anything in their case or testify in their own defense in court. This means that the defendant may choose not to take the witness stand if their case ultimately goes to trial.
However, at a criminal bench or jury trial, the accused individual or their lawyer can assert a legal defense in response to the charge. A valid legal defense may prevent the prosecutor from establishing one or more legal elements of the theft crime, thereby preventing them from satisfying their burden and securing a criminal conviction against the accused individual. In that case, the matter may be subject to a complete dismissal by the court.
Defenses to a Theft Charge
The most difficult legal element for the prosecution to prove in most theft cases is that of criminal intent. In other words, the accused individual must have intended to permanently deprive the true owner of their property. In some instances, the accused person might have taken the item or merchandise in question, believing they were the true owner—or believing they had a legal right to possess the subject property at that time. In that case, the prosecutor may have difficulty proving the accused individual’s intent.
Moreover, mistaken identity may be a defense against a theft crime, along with an alibi. Sometimes, a witness might improperly identify a suspect, causing the police to arrest the wrong person. A person who alleges an alibi essentially states that they were somewhere else when the theft offense allegedly occurred.
Also, an accused individual can point to one or more alleged constitutional violations in response to a theft charge. For example, upon arresting an individual and placing them in custody, the accused person might have requested the presence of legal counsel before answering any questions.
If the police officer continued to question the accused individual, the officer may have violated their Fifth Amendment right to the presence of legal counsel during questioning.
A criminal defense attorney can help you determine which defense or defenses you might be eligible to raise in response to your criminal charge. If your case ultimately goes to trial, your lawyer can assert the appropriate defense on your behalf and work to secure a complete dismissal of your theft charge in court.
Plea Deals in Theft Cases
In some instances, state prosecutors might put a plea deal on the table in a theft case. Prosecutors typically take this step when they do not have strong evidence against the accused person. Alternatively, the prosecutor may not be confident that they can secure a criminal conviction against the accused person if the matter proceeds to trial in the court system.
If an accused person agrees to take a plea deal, they must plead guilty to an offense in exchange for some concession by the state prosecutor. For example, in exchange for pleading guilty to a crime, the state prosecutor might be willing to reduce the charge or offer the accused person a period of probation. In the latter case, if the accused completes all their probationary terms, the conviction on their criminal record may go away.
When weighing whether or not to accept a plea deal, individuals should keep in mind that by pleading guilty, they waive certain constitutional rights in their case. For example, they waive their constitutional right to a trial by jury. They also waive any appeal rights they may otherwise have in the case.
Before accepting a plea deal from the state prosecutor, you should always talk with your lawyer about whether the plea deal is worth accepting, given the facts and circumstances surrounding your criminal charge. If you have a strong legal defense to your charge, you might be better off taking your case to a trial, in which case your theft charge may be subject to a complete dismissal.
Call a Criminal Defense Attorney Right Away
If you are currently pending a criminal charge for theft, you must retain skilled legal counsel to represent you in your case as soon as possible. If you do not get the legal help you need right away, your lawyer may not have sufficient time to prepare a defense and the matter for trial. If you later show up to your court date without legal counsel present, a judge may not give you additional time to retain a lawyer. Instead, the judge can make you proceed forward with your case alone. That almost guarantees an unfavorable result for you.
Generally speaking, the sooner you retain a criminal defense law firm in California to represent you against your theft charge, the better your case result will be. Your lawyer can stand by your side during all criminal court proceedings and zealously advocate for you.
Your attorney can also assist you during plea deal negotiations with state prosecutors and work to get you the best possible deal in your case. Finally, if you ultimately sustain a conviction on your theft charge, your lawyer can represent you at your final sentencing hearing and argue for a fair and reasonable penalty under the circumstances.