California Petty Theft Laws and Penalties

Most types of theft that involve property worth $950 or less will be considered a type of “petty theft”. The California Penal Code has several statutes defining petty theft and distinguishing it from other felony or “wobbler” theft offenses. California Penal Codes sections, including PC 484, 487, 488, 490.2, 459.5, 503, and several others describe the elements and the minimum and maximum penalties for different types of theft. Thefts such as “shoplifting,” embezzlement, check fraud and commercial burglary (which includes shoplifting) are being taken more seriously by prosecutors in Pasadena and Los Angeles than ever before. When too many petty thefts occur in a commercial shopping area, financial losses to business can be problematic. Prices of the products go up due to loss of product to theft, and shoppers have to either pay more for their items or they decide not to shop at that particular business, causing a business owner to lose income. Shoplifting and petty theft crimes have gotten the attention of the local prosecutors, who are now filing criminal charges even when the amount of the theft is small and when the accused is otherwise a law-abiding, contributing member of the community.

One great way to help businesses avoid the loss of their product to theft, while also giving first offenders a chance to avoid a criminal record, would be to implement a statewide pre-filing diversion program. In Los Angeles City, we have a program called the Neighborhood Justice Program, as well as “office hearings”, where the accused will be interviewed and essentially is given the chance to avoid any blemish on his or her criminal record if he or she agrees to perform some community service or take a theft “class”. Attorney Ann Gottesman advocates such programs be implemented in every city, and hopefully, one day the City Prosecutors and District Attorney’s Offices will allow every first-time offender the opportunity to go through a pre-filing diversion program.

Pasadena Criminal Lawyer Ann Gottesman is sensitive to the emotional difficulties that her clients experience when faced with criminal charges of petty theft in the Los Angeles and Pasadena Courts. Jobs, careers, reputations and even a client’s freedom, hang in the balance in any misdemeanor or felony case.

“Good people with families and careers sometimes experience a bout of bad judgement and can find themselves in one of the most frightening and embarrassing moments of their lives. I understand that representing someone who was arrested or charged with petty theft involves more than technical legal expertise. It requires empathy, patience and compassion. I strive to help my clients achieve the best possible results in their shoplifting or petty theft case, with the primary goal of seeking a dismissal of the charge whenever possible.” Ann

Under Penal Code section 484, 488, 459.5, 503, and 490.2, petty theft refers to stealing property or goods that are valued at $950 or less. This is a misdemeanor which carries a maximum of six months in the county jail and a fine up to $1000. However, if grand theft charges are filed under PC 487, which involves the stealing of goods over $950, the District Attorney will usually file felony charges, which exposes the accused to a maximum of three years in county jail. However, sometimes a defense lawyer can convince the prosecution to reduce the felony charge down to a misdemeanor theft charge. Also a judge has the power under Penal Code section 17(b) to reduce a “wobbler” charge such as grand theft (a charge that could be filed as a misdemeanor or felony) down to a misdemeanor in the interest of justice.

Therefore, just because an accused is arrested on a felony theft charge and even if the prosecutor or district attorney files felony charges against the defendant, that does not mean that the charge can not be reduced to a misdemeanor. Of course, an accused always has the constitutional right to go to trial, where the prosecution would have to prove each element of the theft charge beyond a reasonable doubt in order to secure a guilty verdict.

EXAMPLES OF PETTY THEFT CRIMES IN PASADENA, CALIFORNIA

  • Sara enters Macys intending to purchase a skirt for her friend’s birthday party. While trying on several skirts in the dressing room she notices that one skirt is about half the price of the other skirts. The skirt she likes the best is much more expensive than the less expensive skirt. Sara spontaneously decides to switch the price tags so that the expensive skirt now has the price tag of the less expensive skirt. Sara goes to pay for the skirt (which has the wrong price tag) and is stopped by a security guard as she walks towards the exit. In this case, Sara could be charged for petty theft, as a misdemeanor, if the difference in price was $950 or less. If the price difference was over $950, the prosecution could charge Sara with grand theft as a felony, or they could still charge her with a misdemeanor petty theft. 

  • A man enters a hardware store and selects several tools which he places in his shopping cart. The man takes one tool and conceals it in his back pocket. He pays for all the tools except for the one concealed in his pocket. After exiting the store he is approached by security and accused of shoplifting. If the prosecution can prove the man intended to steal the tool in his pocket, he could be convicted of shoplifting.

  • Sara and Emily are at Sara’s house for her birthday party. While Emily is at the party she sees a necklace worth about $300 she likes on a coffee table in Sara’s living room. Emily takes the neckless, puts it in her pocket and brings it home. Later Sara can’t find her necklace and decides to view her security camera which recorded Emily taking the necklace. If it can be proven Emily took Sara’s necklace without Sara’s permission, she can be found guilty of petty theft. If the value of the necklace is over $950, Emily could be charged with felony grand theft.

  • Sally and Jennifer both go to Macys to shop for new clothes. Both women shop together for a period of time. Sally finds a nice top and skirt and tells Jennifer she will meet her at the front of the store in 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Jennifer selects several items of clothing and tries them on in the fitting room. She takes a skirt and a top and rips off the tags and places both items in her purse. These items have a total retail value of $925. Sally has no idea that Jennifer is stealing anything. Jennifer exits the fitting room with the other items and purchases those items. When both women leave the store together, security stops both and escorts them back to the store, accusing both women of stealing. While Jennifer has committed petty theft or shoplifting, Sally is innocent because she had no knowledge her friend was going to steal and did not assist or aid her in anyway.

PROPOSITION 47 AND THEFT OFFENSES IN LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

California voters recently passed Proposition 47 (November, 2014), which has made many theft crimes that used to be felonies, now misdemeanors. For example, it used to be that if you had a previous conviction for petty theft and then got arrested for a second petty theft or other theft related offenses, the prosecutor could charge you under Penal Code 666 with a felony even though the current offense involved goods valued under $400. Now a second petty theft offense $950 or less can only be filed as a misdemeanor (with some exceptions). Prop 47 also lowered several common drug possession charges to misdemeanors when once they were straight felonies.
For example, possessing heroin, cocaine, specified hallucinogens and some other drugs used to be straight felonies, even if the possession was only for personal use and not for sale. Now, possessing such drugs for personal use are misdemeanors. Possessing methamphetamine used to be a “wobbler”, meaning it could be filed as a felony or misdemeanor, but after Prop 47 took effect, personal possession of meth is also a straight misdemeanor. Pasadena Criminal Defense Lawyer Ann Gottesman can review your charges and criminal record and determine if Prop 47 applies to your case.

COURT DIVERSION UNDER PENAL CODE SECTION 1001.94 IN LOS ANGELES

In addition to Proposition 47, a pilot program was once available, prior to January of 2018, that permitted Judges to dismiss most types of first offense misdemeanors (no priors within 10 years, and some exceptions apply such as domestic violence and DUI charges). Unfortunately, this law expired and the legislature never renewed it! Hopefully, this diversion program will be reinstated in the future!

COMMERCIAL BURGLARY AND SHOPLIFTING: MISDEMEANOR OR FELONY FILING

If the police believe the accused entered a business with the intent to steal, commercial burglary charges used to be filed under Penal Code 459, but under Proposition 47, Penal Code section 459.5 now states that the charges must be filed as a misdemeanor if the value of the goods do not exceed $950 and if the theft occurred during a time when the business was open. The law considers this shoplifting.
Under California Penal Code section 459.5, “shoplifting” is actually defined as the act of entering a business with the intent to steal property while that business is open “during regular business hours”, and where the value of the property taken is $950 or less. Shoplifting is punishable by a maximum sentence of 6 months in county jail and up to $1000 fine.

However, there are exceptions. For example, if an accused commits shoplifting as defined in Penal Code section 459.5, but has a prior conviction on his or her record for a felony “specified in clause (iv) of subparagraph (C) of paragraph (2) of subdivision (e) of Section 667 or for an offense requiring registration pursuant to subdivision (c) of Section 290,” then he or she could be charged with a felony and face up to 3 years in county jail. Having a prior conviction for certain strike offenses or sex crimes that require registration under Penal Code 290, could bring an accused within this exception.

For example, if Jane enters a business after it closed and steals $200 worth of items, she can be charged with felony commercial burglary because she entered the business while it was closed. However, if she stole those same items during business hours, the prosecution would only be able to charge her with a misdemeanor petty theft violation under Penal Code section 459.5.

EMBEZZLEMENT AS A FORM OF PETTY THEFT OR GRAND THEFT

Another type of petty theft can be committed through embezzlement. Depending upon the type of item stolen, how much it is worth and from whom it was stolen, the defendant will be punished either under the petty theft statute or under the grand theft statute.

To be guilty of embezzlement, the prosecution would have to prove:

  1. The accused was entrusted with the property of another (such as a boss or employer),
  2. The property owner trusted the accused with the property,
  3. The accused then fraudulently used or converted that property for his or her own benefit, AND
  4. When the accused did so, he or she intended to deprive the owner of the use of the property.

Examples of embezzlement:

Jane works for Sam at a car rental shop. Clients pay to rent vehicles and Jane works at the front desk and is entrusted with taking payments and bringing all the cash earned to the bank every Friday. One Friday Jane takes $5000 in cash to the bank but only deposits $4000. She pockets $1000 of the cash without her boss’s permission. This would be an example of theft by embezzlement. Because the amount of property stolen was over $950, Jane could be prosecuted for felony embezzlement. However, the prosecutor has the discretion to file the charge as a misdemeanor. She would then face a possible maximum sentence of 3 years in county jail and a fine if she is charged with a felony.

Emily cleans homes as a part time job while she goes to college. One day while cleaning Deana’s home, she sees a $100 bill on the floor under the couch. Emily takes the money because she is behind on her rent and intends to replace the bill next time she comes to clean, hoping Deana will never know she was missing the money. Even though Emily did not intend to permanently deprive Deana of the money, this is still embezzlement and she could be charged with embezzlement as a misdemeanor. Because the amount of property taken was under $950, the district attorney or prosecutor could only file a misdemeanor against Emily. Her maximum punishment would be the same as that of a petty theft—up to 6 months in county jail and $1000 fine.

CRIMINAL PENALITIES FOR EMBEZZLEMENT

When the value of the property embezzled is $950 or less, a defendant will face the same penalty as that outlined under petty theft per PC 488. A maximum sentence includes up to six months in county jail and a maximum fine of $1000. If the amount embezzled is over $950 then the defendant is looking at either a sentence up to the maximum for a misdemeanor petty theft, or a sentence up to the maximum for grand theft, which is up to three years in county jail and a fine up to $10,000. (See Penal Code 12022.6 PC.)

Enhancements: If a defendant is convicted of felony embezzlement and the value of the property stolen exceeds specific amounts, the court could add additional custody time consecutively to the underlining sentence.

For example, if the property is worth over $65,000, an enhancement can be added that would lead to an additional one year in custody. An additional 2 years in custody (consecutive) can be added if the property’s value is over $200,000, and an additional 3 years can be added if the value of the property exceeds one million, three hundred thousand dollars ($1,300,000).

DEFENSES TO EMBEZZLEMENT CHARGES:

If you believed you had a right to the property (a good faith belief):


For example: Emily works at an office and she has a boss named Sara. On payday, Sara tells Emily that she has to leave early but will leave Emily’s paycheck on her (Sara’s) desk for Emily to take. Later that day Emily goes to Sara’s desk and sees a blank but signed check on the desk. Assuming this was the check Sara meant for Emily to take as her pay, Emily fills out the rest of the check and cashes it. Emily made out the check for the same amount her paycheck is supposed to be. After she cashes it, Sara confronts Emily and claims that was not the correct check and the check was from a different bank account. Being unreasonable, Sara reports this to the police. In this case, Emily would not be guilty of embezzlement because she had a good faith belief that the check and the amount of money she received when cashing constituted her pay.

Being falsely accused by someone or lacking the intent to commit a crime are also defenses to the charge of theft by embezzlement.

DEFENSES TO PETTY THEFT AND SHOPLIFTING CRIMES IN PASADENA

Lack of Intent: Since theft crimes require specific intent, a person would not be guilty of shoplifting if he or she unwittingly left a store and forgot to pay for the items. Of course, the police may arrest the shopper not believing it was an accident, but in Court, the prosecutor would have to prove the accused intended to leave the store without paying for the items in order to obtain a conviction. This intent must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Belief of Ownership: Another potential defense is that the accused believed he or she had ownership of the items. For example, if a person comes to a department store to exchange an shirt and while looking at other blouses and comparing it to the one she brought with her, unwittingly puts the unpurchased blouse in her bag and hangs up the purchased blouse she intended to exchange or return, this shopper would not be guilty of theft. Because the woman did not intend to put the unpurchased shirt in her bag, she lacked the specific criminal intent required to be guilty of theft.

CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAWYER ANN GOTTESMAN PROVIDES EXPERIENCED AND COMPASSIONATE THEFT CRIMES DEFENSE IN PASADENA AND LOS ANGELES COUNTY.

Having a caring and experienced criminal defense lawyer to represent you is important when an accused wants to bring their side of the story to a jury. Putting the prosecutor to the test of proving the accused committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt is the most important thing a defense attorney can do. Our founding fathers understood the dangers of an oftentimes over reaching and over-zealous government, and wanted to ensure regular citizens are protected from this. A jury of 12 citizens of one’s peers act as a wall between an individual and the powerful government (represented as prosecutors and DAs). A defendant has a right to a trial by jury when charged with a misdemeanor or felony. When a jury trial is requested, no criminally accused person can be convicted of a misdemeanor or felony crime unless all twelve jurors determine that the prosecution has proven each element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.

If you have been charged with the crime of shoplifting, petty theft, grand theft, fraud, embezzlement, receiving stolen property, identity theft, burglary or any other type of theft crime, let the Law Office of Ann Gottesman review your case and provide you with a free and confidential consultation. Ann is dedicated to her clients and personally handles each case, unlike larger firms, where often times, the attorney you meet and hire is not the one fighting for you in court. Call our Los Angeles criminal lawyer for a free consultation today.

“If you or someone you love has been charged with a theft crime in Los Angeles, don’t hesitate to contact me at any time, seven days a week. You do not need to go through this alone, and nor should you. There may be defenses or legal options that you may not even be aware of. I am here to fight for you and stand by you through this difficult time. Call me for a FREE Consultation to discuss your criminal case.” Ann