Theft, otherwise known as larceny, is a criminal act against another person’s property. Generally, the offense occurs when you take property belonging to someone else devoid of their permission and permanently deny them of its use. California statutes define various forms of theft, and a common one is petty theft outlined under PEN 484(a). Usually, prosecutors file the offense as a misdemeanor, and it has a possibility of putting you in jail for a considerable duration. So, it’s wise to take the offense seriously by hiring an attorney the moment you are arrested.

At Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we are here to come to your defense if you are charged with petty theft. Our experienced defense attorneys understand the statutes that apply to your case, the penalties, and defense strategies, making us suitable to protect your rights and freedom.

Legal Definition of Petty Theft

California PEN 484(a) criminalizes the act of taking property belonging to someone else without the person’s consent. As per this statute, you must plan on taking the item permanently from the owner or keep it temporarily, but long enough to deny the owner its use or enjoyment. Lastly, you must move the stolen item and retain it for the offense to be complete, regardless of the duration. In addition, the value of the item or service must be no more than $950.

Note that it won’t be considered petty theft if you take an item directly from the owner’s person or immediate person, like clothing, body, or a purse they are holding, even if the item’s value doesn’t exceed $950. Instead, this offense will be a mugging or robbery. The property shouldn’t be taken directly from the owner for the criminal act to be deemed petty theft.

Furthermore, the property you take without consent mustn’t be any of the following:

  • Firearm or gun

  • Aquaculture products or fish valued at $250 or above when taken from a commercial fishery

  • Horse

  • Any automobile

  • Fruit or nuts whose worth exceeds $250

Forms of Petty Theft and Their Elements

An offense’s nature or characteristics outline how the crime was conducted. Even obtaining another party’s property through deceit amounts to theft. With petty theft differing based on the facts of the criminal act and the type of theft, the elements the prosecuting team must prove in each kind of theft are different. Discussed below are the various kinds of theft that qualify as petty theft and the elements the prosecuting attorney must prove under each category:

  1. Theft Using False Pretenses

When you intentionally lie or deceive someone who owns a property planning to convince them to hand over its ownership or control to you, the offense of theft using false pretenses occurs. The fraudulent representation outlined under PEN 532 include:

  • Deliberately sharing wrong information

  • Claiming a statement is accurate without a suitable basis of determining the truthfulness

  • Making a promise, you don’t plan on fulfilling

  • Not providing or withholding info when asked to

It’s worth noting that as an accused, you are guilty of the violation of PC 532 if the victim of your fraudulent representation relies on the deceit to hand over possession or ownership of the property. It means the false pretenses must be the key reason the victim of your actions transferred ownership. If there is another reason for this, you won’t face PEN 532 violation charges, although false pretenses don’t have to be the only reason.

A conviction for theft relying on fraudulent representation doesn’t happen unless there is evidence to back the claims by the prosecutor. So, the prosecuting attorney must present evidence to support the false pretenses allegations. The proof they can use include:

  • False writing likely to comprise a fake document

  • A single witness together with testimony or proof from at least two witnesses showing you used false pretenses.

  • A scribbled or signed note by the accused.

Demanding tangible evidence from the prosecuting team is crucial in preventing false accusations, where innocent people might face conviction. Cases of false allegations are common, primarily when business deals don’t turn out as planned. Therefore, the unique proof required in these cases helps eliminate the possibility of sentencing falsely accused people.

  1. Petty Theft Involving Physically Carrying Another Party’s Property

Several petty theft cases in Riverside, CA, involve a form of theft known as larceny. It involves physically taking or carrying away property from one party to deprive them of its enjoyment. Under this offense, the prosecuting attorney must prove several elements. One of them is that you took possession of somebody else’s property. Additionally, when you physically took the item, you didn’t have the owner’s consent.

Also, the prosecuting team must demonstrate that you had motives to steal the property. They do this by showing that you permanently planned to deprive the rightful owner of its enjoyment when you took possession of the property in question. Even taking the item from the owner temporarily or for a short duration doesn’t make you innocent of this crime. When the owner misses its enjoyment or possession for a considerable time, however brief it is, you will still be guilty.

The final element the prosecutor has a burden of proving under this petty theft is that you moved the item from its initial position, regardless of the distance.

  1. Petty Theft Using Trick

Petty theft using trick is outlined under PC 484. According to this statute, it’s unlawful for you to deliberately and unlawfully take someone else’s property using trickery. For charges to be labeled against you, it must be clear that you planned on depriving its owner of it permanently or for an extended duration, adequate to deny them of its enjoyment. Furthermore, the prosecutor must show the property owner never planned on transferring its control or ownership.

Note that petty theft by trick might seem like theft by fraudulent representation or false pretenses. However, the two are different because, with trickery, the owner only transfers control and not ownership of the property. However, with theft involving false pretenses, the owner relinquishes control of the items and official ownership.

An excellent example of theft by trickery is when you obtain someone’s item like a phone promising to perform some repairs on it. And instead of executing the repairs or after the repairs, you decide to keep it. Under these circumstances, you may be charged and sentenced for petty theft using trickery.

  1. Theft Through Embezzlement

According to California PEN 503, embezzlement is a white-collar crime that involves using property entrusted to you by another party for personal gain. If the property's value is at most $950, the offense is filed as petty theft. During the prosecution of cases involving petty theft by embezzlement, the prosecuting attorney must demonstrate that when you obtained the property entrusted to you, you planned on denying the rightful owner its enjoyment or use, even if it is for a brief duration.

You will face these charges if someone else trusts you to manage their property. Still, instead of doing so, you breach the trust and confidence the property owner had in you by making them incur losses or using their property to benefit yourself instead of them.

Keep in mind that when faced with these charges, you can’t contest them by claiming that you planned on returning the property to the owner. The critical element the prosecutor should prove is that someone entrusted you with their property, but you breached their confidence by using it fraudulently.

Establishing the Worth of Property in Theft Crimes

The value or worth of the products stolen is usually a significant determinant of whether you will face grand or petty theft charges. If the price of the item is indicated on it, it becomes easy to establish its cost. However, when it comes to personal effects like jewelry, the court relies on fair market prices to demonstrate its worth.

The fair market value refers to the highest amount the product could fetch if sold in an open market in the location where it was stolen. So, if you stole the jewelry in Riverside, CA, the court and the prosecuting team will rely on the prevailing fair market prices in this location.

Petty Theft and Shoplifting Items Valued at $950 or Less

Under California theft crimes, shoplifting is defined as a distinct offense as per PEN 459.5. The offense is defined as entering a commercial building during operation or work hours and taking items valued at no more than $950 without paying.

Note that before the adoption of Prop 14 in 2014, this offense was distinct under the burglary law. However, today you might face shoplifting or petty theft charges when you commit the shoplifting offense, although this depends on the circumstances surrounding the crime. If the worth of the shoplifted items doesn’t surpass $950, you may face PEN 488 violation charges.

Also, you must understand that under PC 459.5, even if you don’t make it in shoplifting, you will still face the charges for attempting to commit the offense. Therefore, for you to face petty theft charges, you must have succeeded with your shoplifting mission.

However, to face shoplifting charges in a shoplifting incident, gaining access to the store with the intent to shoplift alone amounts to a crime and can attract charges under PC 459.5. When you shoplift products whose price is less than $950, the prosecutor has the discretion to charge you under PC 488 or PC 459.5 but cannot file the two charges against you at the same time. Mostly shoplifting and petty theft offenses attract the same penalties.

Penalties and Sentencing Guidelines for Petty Theft

The petty theft offense is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of no more than $1,000 and county jail incarceration for at most half a year. Sometimes, instead of serving the six months jail term, the judge might impose summary probation. You don’t need to make frequent appointments with the probation officer or office with this kind of probation.

Furthermore, the judge could impose a monetary court fine of no more than $1,000.

Also, the court will check your criminal record, and you may face a sentence enhancement if they discover you have been previously convicted of any of the following crimes:

  • Carjacking

  • Obtaining stolen goods

  • Petty theft

  • Burglary

  • Grand theft

  • Robbery

However, to face penalty enhancement for petty theft with a prior, there are other requirements that the court considers on top of the criminal history. You may face enhancement when you have a prior conviction about elderly abuse like stealing from, defrauding, or embezzling from a senior citizen or elder. Further, the court will check if you have been previously convicted of a sex offense requiring you to list as a sex offender or a serious or violent felony like homicide.

The prosecutor can show that you have a conviction record, hence enhancing sentencing during a prosecution. However, if they can’t produce this evidence at the trial, they can request a special hearing known as a bifurcated trial. In cases like these, you will have two trials controlled by two different jurors. One of the trials is to prove guilt for the baseline offense, and the bifurcated one demonstrates that you have been previously convicted hence the need for sentence enhancement.

Note that before the adoption of Prop 47, if you are convicted for petty theft and have a prior conviction, the law was harsh. However, you could only face the punitive law if you have accumulated three prior offenses for which you were incarcerated.

Today, having a prior conviction attracts less severe penalties. If you were convicted before the passage of Prop 47, you can appeal the decision and be resentenced under the new law, which will see the charges reduced significantly.

If you meet or satisfy the criteria provided after the passage of Prop 47, petty theft with a prior is a wobbler based on the facts and nature of the case. When charged with a misdemeanor, a conviction will attract no more than twelve months in county jail. Nevertheless, a felony conviction will result in 16, 24, or 36 months in prison.

Reducing Petty Theft Charges

A criminal record for petty theft can have brutal consequences in many aspects of your life. Therefore, it’s only wise to do everything you can to keep the charges or conviction off your record. The best way to do this is by having the charges reduced or utilizing the diversion program.

First, you can have the misdemeanor petty theft charge reduced to an infraction, but to do this, you must not have a prior conviction for PC 488 violation or any other theft crime. Additionally, the value or worth of the stolen item must be no more than $50. If you satisfy these requirements, the court will charge you with an infraction whose conviction attracts a monetary court fine not exceeding $250 with no jail time.

Similarly, you can participate in a petty theft diversion program that permits the court to dismiss all your charges upon successful completion. Your criminal defense attorney will play a crucial role in this stage because they are the ones that negotiate with the prosecuting team to find a way of keeping the criminal act off your records. If the attorney successfully convinces the prosecutor to impose a diversion program, the court will lay down the program’s conditions. It’s upon completion of these conditions that the charges will be dismissed. The criteria you must meet include:

  • Repay the entire worth of the stolen commodity

  • Attend an anti-theft program

  • Complete community labor or hours for the agreed duration

Expunction of a Petty Theft Criminal Record

As indicated earlier, a criminal conviction for any theft offense can have devastating impacts on all aspects of your life, employment, reputation, and professional licensing. Luckily, as a convict, PEN 1203.4 releases you from all the disabilities stemming from a conviction.

You are qualified for an expunction if you meet the following criteria:

  • You’ve completed probation and satisfied all the court-imposed conditions

  • You have no current criminal charges, serving a jail or prison term for a crime

  • You weren’t incarcerated in a state prison or could have been sentenced to jail custody under Prop 47.

Note that your probation doesn’t need to be canceled after violating some of the imposed conditions. The court has the discretion to delete your record even if you didn’t satisfy some of the probation requirements.

However, if you are registered as a sex offender, you cannot obtain an expunction. The same applies if you committed a sex offense towards a minor.

Once the record is erased, an employer cannot deny you a job or promotion based on the erased record. In addition, unless you are vying for an elective position or want to become a public officer, you are not required to disclose your prior arrest or conviction to prospective employers.

Also, you are eligible for an expunction if the following is true:

  • You were apprehended, but the prosecuting team never filed charges

  • The timeline provided by the statute of limitation law to file charges lapsed

  • The charges were filed but later dismissed by the court

  • You obtained acquittal through trial

  • An appellate court upended the conviction

  • You completed the petty theft diversion program, and the charges were dismissed

Your criminal record is accessible to the public, meaning the stigma of a conviction can follow you for the rest of your life. The records are then sealed from public access, enabling you to leave your mistakes in the past.

Contesting Petty Theft Charges

Although expunction is good for you, it’s not the best option. You don’t need to wait until you are sentenced to start the expunction process. You can fight the charges during the trial and prevent a conviction, meaning you won’t have any records to seal. Fortunately, your attorney can help you contest the charges or allegations brought against you by the prosecutor. The legal defenses that can be applied to fight the charges are:

You Had the Owner’s Permission or Consent

Remember, you are only guilty of petty theft if you take somebody else’s property without their permission. Therefore, if you can show that you had consent from the owner to take the property, this is a solid legal defense against the accusations. However, if you gained consent through fraudulent representation, permission from the owner won’t hold as a legal defense against the charges.

You Borrowed the Item in Question

Recall, a crucial element the prosecuting team must demonstrate is that after you took or stole the product, you planned to deprive of its owner permanently. Therefore, it’s a solid defense to assert that you were merely borrowing the item and you planned on returning it at a later date. For this defense to hold, you must demonstrate that you attempted to return the property to the owner within a reasonable duration after obtaining it.

You Reasonably Believed the Property Belong to You or Claim of Right

Another valid defense under this code section is the claim of right. You can assert that you honestly and in good faith believed the property belonged to you and that you had a right to take it. The defense would hold in court even if your belief were mistaken.

You Had no Intent to Steal

The prosecuting team needs to demonstrate that you planned to steal the item. Therefore, if you didn’t intend to steal the item or deprive the owner of its use, you will be absolved from the crime.

If it’s a case of petty theft using fraudulent representation, you can demonstrate a lack of intent by asserting that you were unaware that what you said was false and didn’t plan to make the victim believe it. It’s not a walk in the park to demonstrate a lack of intent, meaning you will need a competent criminal defense attorney for your case.

Find a Riverside Criminal Attorney Near Me

A simple mistake or wrongful accusation can have you arrested for petty theft, whose conviction has brutal repercussions like jail incarceration, hefty court fines, and a criminal record that haunts you for the rest of your life. Therefore, if you face these charges, you need to seek guidance from an experienced criminal attorney. At Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm, we are available to help you fight the charges. Contact us today at 951-946-6366 to discuss our case.