California Penal Code Section 484(a) PC and 488 PC: Petty Theft
1. Definition and Elements of the Crime
Petty theft is one of the most common theft crimes charged by prosecutors. While the vast majority of these cases involve shoplifting, petty theft under California Penal Code Section 484(a) and California Penal Code Section 488 PC can include any theft crime that meets the following criteria:
- The value of the property stolen is $950 or less.
- The property was not taken directly off another person (such as a robbery or mugging offense)
- The item stolen was not a gun or an automobile.
Most petty theft prosecutions involve allegations of shoplifting, which is considered petty theft by larceny. To prove a defendant committed this offense, the prosecutor must be able to establish the following elements:
- The defendant took possession of property owned by someone else
- The defendant took the property without the consent of the owner
- When the defendant took the property, he or she intended to remove it from the owner's possession
- The defendant moved the property, even a small distance, and kept it for any period of time, however brief
- The value of the property was $950 or less.
The following theft offenses can also be charged under the petty theft statute, as long as the amount of property stolen does not exceed $950:
- Theft by false pretense - this is theft by deceiving a property owner via a false claim or pretense. An example would be a man who stands outside of a private, unmanned parking lot during the evening. He pretends to be a parking attendant and tells people that parking costs $10. People pay him and leave their car at the lot, despite the fact that man has no connection to the property. The people subsequently get their cars towed. The man would be guilty of theft by false pretense by deceiving people into paying him.
- Theft by trick - This theft offense involves tricking a person into willingly handing over property for what they think is only a temporary period, but turns out to be permanent. For example, a man offers to clean and repair watches and jewelry. People give their items to this man for service. The man never returns the items and keeps the property for himself. This man has committed theft by trick.
- Theft by embezzlement - This involves unlawfully converting ownership of property that has been entrusted. It is often considered a white collar crime because it usually involves people in a position of trust stealing funds from accounts they have the ability to access (i.e. business or client accounts).
2. Related Offenses
Other similar or related offenses include:
- Grand Theft - California Penal Code Section 487 PC
- Burglary - California Penal Code Section 459 PC
- Robbery - California Penal Code Section 211 PC
A man goes into a department store and selects several items of clothing. He goes into a dressing room and hides these items under his shirt. His activities are recorded on a surveillance camera. He does not leave the store, but is stopped by loss prevention officers as he starts to move towards an exit. As long as the value of the goods is less than $950, the man could be prosecuted for petty theft. The fact that he did not actually exit the store would not be relevant, as the statute only requires that he moves the property a small distance.
In another example, a woman at a large store selects several items. She pays for some items and leaves some to put back. She inadvertently walks out with a small item that she had forgotten she still had in her hands. This woman would not be criminally liable for petty theft because she did not intend to take the item, and the statute requires an intentional removal of property.
4. Defenses to Petty Theft
As described above, the crime of petty theft requires intent, therefore someone who inadvertently takes an item would have a valid accident defense if he or she is ever charged criminally. In addition, if the defendant honestly and reasonably believed the property in question belongs to them, or if the owner consented to its removal, there would be no criminal liability under the petty theft statute.
Petty theft is generally a misdemeanor offense that can carry a sentence of up to six months in jail, court fines, restitution and stay-away orders. Some prosecutorial agencies will reduce a petty theft charge to an infraction under California Penal Code Section 490.1 PC. Other prosecutors may even agree to allow a first-time petty theft defendant to complete a diversion program in order to avoid a criminal conviction. Someone with a prior petty theft conviction may be charged with petty theft with a prior pursuant to California Penal Code Section 666 PC. This offense is a "wobbler" that can be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor. If charged as a felony, the maximum sentence is three years in prison. Any conviction for petty theft would go on a person's criminal record and would be visible to future employers, landlords, or anyone else conducting a criminal background check.
6. Criminal Defense for Petty Theft Cases
If you or a loved one have been charged with petty theft, it is crucial that you speak with a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney immediately. Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Michael Kraut is a former Deputy District Attorney with over 14 years of prosecutorial experience who has extensive experience in defending people charged with petty theft. Mr. Kraut is highly respected as a tough and knowledgeable advocate and has established key relationships throughout the court system. In many cases, Mr. Kraut's early involvement and intervention in a case can make the difference as to whether or not criminal charges are filed.
For more information about petty theft, and to schedule your free consultation, contact Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Michael Kraut at the Kraut Law Group located at 6255 Sunset Boulevard, Suite 1520, Los Angeles, CA 90028. Mr. Kraut can be reached 24/7 at 888-334-6344 or 323-464-6453.