If you have been charged with a theft crime, you want to take the charges seriously because they can have serious consequences. These consequences include tainted reputation, prison/jail term, and hefty fines. Regardless of how strong the proof against you might be, don’t plead guilty without talking to your lawyer, especially if you don’t understand the law and available options.

At Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we have many years of experience helping clients fight theft crime charges in Riverside. Call us when you learn about your charges, and we will advise you on the ideal legal options and help you fight for your rights. We can help you understand theft crime laws, including how the prosecution proves charges, punishments upon a conviction, and legal defenses you can use to fight your case.

Theft Crime Overview

Under California law, theft crime involves stealing property, intending to deprive the owner of it permanently. Theft crimes consist of a broad range of charges, including infractions, felonies, and misdemeanors. The severity of each of these charges is directly tied to your criminal history and facts defining your specific offense. Theft crimes also include misconducts that don’t directly involve stealing. For instance, receiving stolen property under Penal Code 496  is a theft crime that doesn’t need the prosecution to show that you took someone’s property, intending to deprive them of it permanently. 

Petty Theft vs. Grand Theft

California theft offenses are prosecuted as either petty or grand theft based on the stolen item’s character and value. You will face grand theft charges under PC 487 if the worth of the property you made away with is more than $950. However, we have a few exceptions, which are:

  • If you took the property from the victim’s person
  • The property you took is a farm animal, firearm, or automobile.

In this case, you will be charged with grand theft irrespective of the property’s value at the time you took it.

All other theft offenses where the property’s value doesn’t go above $950 or the property itself doesn’t fall within the exceptions mentioned above will be prosecuted under petty theft law.

The property’s worth is determined by its present market value at the time of the crime. If services were stolen, their value is determined as per their contract price. And if there’s no contract price, the value is established as per the services’ reasonable wages.

Most petty theft offenses are prosecuted as misdemeanors, carrying a maximum county jail sentence of six months or informal probation of up to three years and a fine not exceeding $1,000. But if the property’s value is fifty dollars or less, the district attorney (DA) can prosecute the crime as an infraction, provided you have no prior theft offense convictions. If you are convicted of petty theft as an infraction, you will pay a fine that does not exceed $250.

Grand theft is a wobbler offense. A misdemeanor conviction will subject you to a jail sentence of up to a year, while a felony conviction leads to a prison sentence of sixteen months or three or two years. However, a grand theft where the stolen property is a gun is always a felony. Its penalties include spending sixteen months or three or two years in prison.

Different Types of Theft Crimes Under Petty Theft and Grand Theft

As we mentioned above, California theft crimes are charged as either petty theft or grand theft. There are several different types of theft under these two main categories, including:

Penal Code 666 - Petty Theft with a Prior

A petty theft crime that involves stolen property worth $950 or less can be prosecuted as a wobbler (meaning the DA can charge it as a misdemeanor or felony) in case you have these prior convictions:

  • A past conviction for a violent or serious crime, or any embezzlement or registerable sex crime against any person above 65 years old or dependent adult
  • At least one past petty theft or any theft-related conviction whereby you served an imprisonment term

A misdemeanor could subject you to a maximum jail sentence of one year, while a felony may lead to a prison sentence of three or two years or sixteen months.

Penal Code 463 - Looting 

If you commit petty theft or grand theft at the time of a local emergency, evacuation order, or state of emergency, you can be convicted of looting. Looting that involves grand theft is a wobbler crime. A misdemeanor conviction carries a maximum jail sentence of one year, while felony punishments include sixteen months or three or two years in prison.  When petty theft is involved, the penalties will be six months in jail. Both looting consequences carry a jail term that can only be lowered when the judge rules that the reduction is in the interests of justice.

Penal Code 459.5 - Shoplifting 

Shoplifting refers to entering an open business intending to commit petty theft. The DA has to prove the following for you to be found guilty of shoplifting:

  • You entered a business establishment.
  • The establishment was open during usual business hours.
  • You did that intending to steal merchandise worth $950 or less (petty theft)

Keep in mind that the prosecutor doesn’t need to show that you left the commercial establishment with the property. This means you’ll be guilty of shoplifting if a guard catches you red-handed in the establishment. A violation of PC 459.5 is a misdemeanor and is punishable by a maximum jail term of six months and up to $1,000 in fines.

Penal Code 459 - Burglary

Burglary is entering any residential or commercial structure or locked vehicle intending to commit petty theft, grand theft, or any felony. Note that you’re guilty of a burglary the moment you enter a structure with the intent to commit theft or a felony. The prosecutor doesn’t need to prove that you indeed succeeded in executing the crime. Also, note that the entry into the structure/vehicle doesn’t have to be achieved through force, threats of violence, or any destruction act. It only needs to be done with the intent to commit theft or a felony.

On the flip side, you can be convicted of burglary only if you had the intent to commit a felony or theft at the time of entering the structure. If you didn’t have that intent or formed it only after entering the building, you didn’t commit any burglary.

There are two types of burglary offenses, penalized differently— burglary in the first degree, and burglary in the second degree. First-degree burglary is a burglary of a residence, whereas second-degree burglary is of any structure that isn’t a residence, i.e., a commercial building.

Burglary in the first degree is always a felony, and its consequences may include two, four, or six years in prison, felony probation, and up to $10,000 in fines. Additionally, the offense counts as a strike under the Three Strikes law.

Burglary in the second degree has lighter punishments than first-degree. This crime is a wobbler. The possible penalties for a felony conviction are formal probation, a fine not exceeding $10,000, and sixteen months, two, or three years served in jail. On the other hand, a misdemeanor conviction is punishable by misdemeanor probation, up to $1,000 in fines, and a maximum of one year in jail.

Penal Code 459 - Auto Burglary

You would have committed the crime of auto burglary if you entered a locked vehicle or its truck intending to steal the automobile, the property contained in it, or commit any other felony while inside it. The definition of this crime revolves around two primary factors called the elements of the offense. You cannot be convicted of auto burglary except if this is true:

  • You went inside a locked auto.
  • When you were there, you aimed to commit a felony or petty theft.

Note that the car doors or trunk has to be locked. Thus, you have to alter the auto’s physical state (breaking into it in a way) to be convicted of the crime of auto burglary. Therefore, whether the vehicle’s doors were locked or not is a critical element of this offense. In case the auto’s trunk was locked, and you are supposed to have made away with property from the trunk, it is considered a locked automobile as well.  Actions that may count as auto burglary include:

  • Smashing a locked car’s windows to go in
  • Opening a locked car’s trunk with a screwdriver

In nearly all cases, burglary of an automobile is a second-degree offer, i.e., less severe burglary. This means the offense is a wobbler.  If you’re convicted of a misdemeanor, the penalties you will face include up o a year in jail. And if you’re convicted of a felony, your punishment will include a jail sentence of sixteen months or two or three years served under the realignment program.

There’s an exception to the general rule that burglary of an automobile is a burglary in the second degree. Should you break into a trailer coach, for instance, an RV that’s inhabited intending to commit a theft or any other felony, you may face a first-degree burglary charge. This misconduct is always charged as a felony. The penalties include two, four, or six years in prison.

Penal Code 211 - Robbery

Robbery is a theft offense involving the application of physical force, fear, violence, threats, and intimidation to obtain property from another person. In many cases, a perpetrator uses a weapon to intimidate the victim.  Where a weapon was used, the prosecutor could charge the crime as an aggravated or armed robbery. A robbery offense requires the involvement of more than one party where force or threats of force was used.

Robbery often carries harsher penalties than other theft crimes because of the additional elements (i.e., threat, force, or violence). The precise consequences depend on different factors, for instance, if  substantial bodily harm was caused or a weapon was used to execute the offense. The property value doesn’t count. You also do not need to have had the property in your possession for you to be guilty.

Penal Code 496 - Receiving Stolen Property

Receiving stolen property means buying, receiving, possessing, selling, or concealing property you know has been stolen in any way. The prosecution has to prove you received, purchased, or hid stolen property, and you were aware it was illegally acquired for you to be convicted.

A violation of PC 496 is a wobbler offense and usually bases on the property’s worth. In case the property value is below $950, you will face misdemeanor charges. A misdemeanor conviction penalties include misdemeanor probation, up to a year in jail, and up to $1,000 in fines. If the property value is more than $950 or you have a past conviction, you will face felony charges. The penalties are felony probation, a maximum of $10,000 in fines, and a prison sentence of three years.

Penal Code 464 - Burglary of a Safe or Vault

PC 464 is the law that describes the offense of burglary of a safe/ vault, which is sometimes known as safe blowing. You commit this crime by going into a building intending to commit an offense when inside and then using explosives or a torch to blow open a safe, vault, or any other secure space. For the judge to convict you of this misconduct, the prosecution must show that:

  • You went into a building.
  • When inside it, you tried to or opened a safe, vault, or any other secure place
  • The attempt to open or open was made using explosives or a torch.
  • When you went into the building, you specifically intended to commit another offense.

It does not count whether the building you entered was uninhabited or inhabited or whether you went in at night or during the day. This differs from burglary law under PC 459, which sets forth different punishments for burglary of a residence than for burglary of a non-residence. But you must have entered the building for you to be convicted. Should you try opening a vault or safe without having first gone into a building intending to do so, you cannot be convicted of this crime.

Additionally, going into a building and opening or trying to open a vault or safe should be two distinct acts. You need to have first entered the building then opened or attempted to open the secure place.

A violation of PC 464 is charged as a felony. The possible consequences include:

  • Formal (felony) probation
  • Up to $10,000 in fines
  • Three, five, or seven years served in jail under the state’s realignment program.

Apart from these penalties, safe blowing is a deportable offense, meaning you must take special care if you’re not a citizen and face charges for this offense.

Penal Code 424 - Misappropriation of Public Funds

PC 424 is the law that makes it an offense for a public officer or trustee of public funds to misappropriate the funds for improper use. This kind of misconduct is most often charged against local and state officials. However, it could also be prosecuted against any other person who has control of government funds. PC 424 lists several ways in which you can commit the offense of misappropriation of public funds. They are:

  • Appropriating government money without authority
  • False accounts/ unlawfully destroying or altering accounts
  • Profiting from, misusing, or loaning public funds without permission
  • Transfer or refusing to pay public funds
  • Exception for incidental and minimal amounts

A violation of PC 424 is a felony offense. The possible penalties include:

  • Formal (felony) probation
  • Two, three, or four years in prison
  • Up to $10,000 in fines

Apart from these penalties, if you’re guilty of this crime, you won’t be allowed to hold any public office in California. This means a California PC 424 conviction is even more severe for state employees than a typical criminal conviction.

Penal Code 215 - Carjacking

Carjacking is taking an auto from someone else through fear or force. For the judge to convict you of this crime, the prosecution must show that:

  • A person had an auto
  • You took the vehicle from their immediate presence (or the passenger’s immediate presence)
  • Against their will through fear or force
  • intending to deprive them of it either temporarily or permanently

A violation of PC 215 is charged as a felony, whose punishments include probation and a maximum of a year in jail, nine, five, or three years in prison, and up to $10,000 in fines.

You face these punishments for every victim that’s in the vehicle during the commission of the crime. And apart from these consequences, there are various sentencing enhancements applicable to this crime. They are:

  1. Substantial Bodily Injury Under PC 12022.7

In case, while committing the crime, you make another person sustain significant bodily injury, you will face an additional and consecutive three to six years in prison.

  1. Criminal Street Gang Enhancement Under PC 186.22

If the prosecution proves you committed carjacking:

  • For the advantage of,
  • in association with, or
  • At the direction of a criminal gang,

you will face an additional and consecutive fifteen years in prison to life imprisonment.

  1. 10-20 -Life ‘Use a Gun and You Are Done Law Under PC 12022.53

PC 12022.53 would subject you to an additional and consecutive prison sentence of ten years if you used a gun. You also face an additional and consecutive twenty years if you fired it and twenty-five years to life imprisonment for severely injuring or killing someone else with the firearm during the commission of your crime.

  1. Three Strikes Law

A violation of PC 215 is a violent felony. By this, it means that apart from the original penalties, a conviction results in a strike on your criminal record per the state’s three strike’s law.

General Defenses to California Theft Crimes

Often, theft charges are based on weak proof that has to be vigorously challenged. The following legal defenses can apply to theft crimes depending on the circumstances surrounding the specific case.

  • Lack of Specific Intent — Every theft crime requires the accused to have had the intention to commit the offense. If the DA doesn’t successfully prove that you had the required specific intent, you will not be convicted.
  • A claim of Right — if you believed that you had a right to the property, even if that belief is unreasonable or mistakes, you can use it as a defense against your theft crime charges.
  • Right of Possession — You can’t be charged with theft if the supposedly stolen property rightly belongs to you and you have the legal right to possess it.
  • Consent — if you had the property owner’s permission to take the supposedly stolen property, you cannot be convicted of theft.
  • False accusations
  • Asportation – To count as a complete theft, the property has to be carried away or asported. Asportation has three requirements:
  • The property is detached from the owner’s possession.
  • The property is in the complete possession of the thief/thieves.
  • The property is moved, regardless of how slightly.

Thus, if you never took the item or property from the owner, the property wasn’t ever in your complete possession, or you never moved it whatsoever, that is not a completed theft.

The following are not valid defenses to theft crime charges:

  • No need to benefit from or use the stolen property— it doesn’t matter that you didn’t intend to use the property you took or benefit from it. You are guilty of theft if you intended to deprive the property owner of it permanently.
  • Possession— the victim doesn’t have to be the actual property owner. They only need to have been in its control for it to count as theft.
  • The intent to return the property to its owner isn’t a legal defense to theft.

Find a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

If you have been charged with theft, whether petty or grand theft, you want to start building your defense strategies right away. Several factors are involved in theft cases, and successfully defending yourself against them is almost impossible without a lawyer’s help. And since your freedom is at stake, choosing an experienced theft crime attorney is one of the best decisions.

At Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we have many years of experience defending clients facing theft crime charges in Riverside and the surrounding areas. We will work hard to contest the proof the DA has against you and build a solid defense strategy to have the court dismiss or reduce your charges. Call us at 951-946-6366 today, and we will offer all the help you need to achieve a favorable outcome.