The overwhelming percentage of theft cases in California involve petty theft. Most of these involve shoplifting. The sum and substance of California Penal Code 484(a) is that petty theft occurs when a person is deprived of property and the value of the property taken is less than $950.00. It can’t be taken off of the body of a person like in a purse snatching. The statute excludes certain items such as guns, cars, or certain types of animals or wildlife.
The intent to permanently deprive is one of the key elements of petty theft. Deprivation can be for any amount of time. If a person steals a $700 necklace from a jewelry store on Saturday, and returns it on Monday after wearing it at a party, they’ve deprived the jewelry store of the property and the opportunity to sell it. This eliminates nullification of the crime by returning the property to its owner.
The petty theft statute contemplates, but doesn’t limit itself to other crimes such as embezzlement or theft by trick. Embezzlement occurs when one has been given lawful possession of money or property through trust or confidence and then converts it to their own use. Theft by trick can be as simple as switching price tags at the local WalMart. Fraud is also often charged as petty theft when the value of the property applies.
Petty theft is a misdemeanor in California. It’s punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine not to exceed $1,000 and probation.
The fundamental defense to petty theft is demonstrating that the article belonged to the accused, or that it didn’t belong to the accuser. It might also be shown that the alleged victim consented to the accused taking the property, and then changed their mind after transferring possession.
The element of intent can also be defeated. Perhaps an item was exchanged for another, and you didn’t realize you had to go to another place in the store to pay the difference before leaving. Maybe an item had the wrong price tag on it to begin with. Maybe a person was called home in a hurry, and they walked out of a store as quickly as they walked in, with a single item under the arm they were holding their phone with.
One single conviction of a crime like petty theft can have implications for years to come because it creates a criminal record. It can cost job opportunities, security clearances and promotions. Sometimes the petty theft charge can be reduced down to a civil infraction that carries no criminal consequences. Other than a dismissal or a not guilty verdict, this is the best case scenario if a peron is guilty.
An experienced criminal attorney has been through all of this before with many other clients. They’ll know what to look for and what to do to get the best possible result for you.