Theft crimes in California involve the criminal act of taking someone else’s property without their permission. These criminal acts can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the facts involved with the case and the discretion of the prosecutor or district attorney. At the Law Office of Ann Gottesman, Ann has successfully handled numerous theft related cases for her clients. Ann is compassionate, aggressive, and experienced; she has been passionately representing and defending her clients accused of criminal offenses in the Los Angeles County Courts for over 14 years.

Theft Offenses When Charged as Misdemeanors

If the property has a value of $950 or less, and it is stolen, the defendant is usually charged with a misdemeanor. Punishment for misdemeanor charges, if convicted, can result in a jail sentence up to, but no longer than six months or one year, depending upon the statute. There can also be a fine attached, as well as the requirement for you to pay restitution to the victim.

Under our California Penal Code, there are numerous statutes that define petty theft. These separate laws distinguish petty theft from other felony theft crimes or theft offenses that are “wobblers”-they can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor depending upon the prosecutor’s discretion. For example, Penal Code sections 484, 487, 490.2, 459.5, 503, and some other statutes, each describe the elements of that particular theft offense, and declares the minimum and maximum penalties for each type of theft crime.

For example, PC 459.5, is oftentimes charged when a shoplifter is accused of stealing merchandise worth $950 or less. However, if the accused entered the business and stole merchandise worth $950 or less during non-business hours (the business was closed at the time of the taking), then a prosecutor can charge the accused with burglary, a violation of PC section 459. Burglary is a “wobbler,” meaning the prosecutor has discretion to file the charge as a felony or misdemeanor.

For example, if Marissa steals $75 worth of lipstick from Target during regular business hours, and she does not have a prior criminal record that includes specific priorable offenses, then she could only be charged with petty theft, a misdemeanor, since the amount of the items was not more than $950. (In fact, Penal Code section 488 specifically states that thefts not defined as felonies must be considered a petty theft.) However, if Marissa stole goods worth the same amount but entered the store through an unlocked back door after the store had closed for the day, then she could be charged with felony commercial burglary under PC section 459. So, whether the defendant is alleged to have stolen the items during open business hours, or during a time when the business was closed, can make a big difference in the seriousness of the charges filed. The Penal Code includes numerous statutes that address specific types of property and whether the stealing of such property is a felony grand theft or a misdemeanor petty theft.

Essentially, a theft crime will be a misdemeanor petty theft if it satisfies the following elements as stated in Penal Code section 484(a) and PC 488:

  • The property’s value must be less than $950,
  • You took possession of another person’s property without consent
  • When you took the property, you had intent to remove it from the owner’s possession
  • You moved the property and kept it for a period of time
  • The property stolen was not taken from the victim’s person by force or fear (that would constitute a potential robbery), and
  • The property did not include specified objects such as a gun or a car.

Under Penal Code section 490.1, a petty theft involving property that does not exceed a monetary value of $50 can be charged as a misdemeanor or an infraction. Often times, in such cases a defense attorney can negotiate an infraction or diversion (the accused can earn a full dismissal).

A civil compromise can sometimes be worked out with the victim in misdemeanor theft cases. If the victim signs a civil compromise declaration stating he or she received full restitution and agrees with a court dismissing the charges, then a judge would have authority to dismiss the criminal theft charges.

Theft Offenses Charged as a Felony

If a property has a value of more than $950, and it is stolen, the defendant may be charged with a felony violation of grand theft under Penal Code section 487.

The California Legislature has defined certain acts of theft as felony theft crimes even when the value of the property stolen is $950 or less. For example, you may be surprised to know that under PC section 487, if one steals avocados, olives, citrus vegetables, nuts and other types of farm crops and the value of that food is more than $250, such theft is considered grand theft and can be charged as a felony! (See PC 487(b)(1)(A).)

When theft is committed by an employee and that employee steals money, labor or other property from his or her employer, the employee can be charged with a felony if the value of that property or money stolen equals or exceeds $950 in a one year period. (See PC 487(b)(3).) Many times, theft charges against an employee who is entrusted with handling money for the business will be charged with embezzlement under Penal Code section 503. (More about that below.)

Felony convictions can be punished with jail or prison time, restitution to the victim, high court fines, required counseling sessions, as well as probation. If you have previous convictions for specific crimes on your record, the consequences at sentencing may increase.

Common Theft Offenses in California

  • Penal Code Section 666- Petty Theft with a Prior

Prior to Proposition 47, which became law in 2014, people could be charged with a felony theft offense if they suffered only one prior conviction for shop lifting (petty theft) or other misdemeanor theft charges.

For example, before the law changed for the better, a shoplifter who was previously convicted for stealing $75 of merchandise from a store, could be charged with a felony violation of Penal Code section 666 if they were convicted of a new petty theft offense, even if the amount of the merchandise was very small, such as only $20. The District Attorneys and City Prosecutors had a high level of discretion in filing these cases and they had the power to charge a petty theft with a prior as a misdemeanor or a felony.

Then, shortly before the passage of Prop 47 (in 2014), the Legislature changed the law and required the prosecution prove at least 3 prior theft convictions existed on the defendant’s record before being allowed to charge a new petty theft or shoplifting offense as a felony. A felony theft conviction typically has a sentence of 16 months, two years or three years.

Luckily, in 2014, the Legislature changed the law again with respect to theft crimes. After the passage of Prop 47, most defendants, even if they have three prior convictions on their criminal records for theft offenses, a new petty theft conviction will still be a misdemeanor unless that person falls into an exception:

If an accused with three prior theft related convictions is charged with a new petty theft offense (which is defined as a misdemeanor) but that person has a prior conviction for a violation of PC sections 368(d) or (e), or is a sex offender who was required to register as a sex offender, then the prosecutor can charge the new theft offense as a felony.

If convicted of a felony theft such as petty theft “with a prior”, an accused could get the maximum of up to 3 years in county jail.

A decent theft crimes defense attorney will thoroughly investigate the case, present mitigation to the prosecutor and fight to have the felony charges lowered to a misdemeanor or take the case to a jury trial if that is in the client’s best interest.

  • Penal Code Section 215- Carjacking

Carjacking is a serious crime in the State of California, and is codified in penal code section 215. Carjacking involves the act of taking a car from another through the means of fear or force. This offense is charged if a person inflicts physical force upon the alleged victim, or there was a threat of imminent physical harm when taking the vehicle.

If you are charged with carjacking, a prosecutor would need to prove the following elements of the crime to secure a conviction. Remember, in criminal law, the District Attorney or city prosecutor must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt. The elements for carjackin are:

  1. The alleged victim was in possession of a vehicle,

  2. The accused took control of that vehicle away from the victim who was present (victim could be a driver or passenger and does not have to be a registered owner of the vehicle),

  3. The taking of the vehicle was against the will of the alleged victim or committed by force or fear, AND

  4. The accused intended to permanently or temporarily deprive the alleged victim of the vehicle.

A carjacking victim can be a passenger or the driver, and the ownership status of the victim is not important. Anytime a vehicle is taken from the immediate presence of another through the use of fear, or the threat of force, the accused may be charged with the crime of carjacking.

The theft offense of carjacking is a felony, and if convicted, you could be sentenced up to nine years in a California prison. The penalty will be even harsher if you:

  • Injure the victim during the crime

  • A gun is used as a threat or is actually fired during the crime

  • The offense is committed for the benefit of a gang

  • A kidnapping occurred during the offense

Carjacking conviction will be a strike under the ‘California Three Strike Law.’

  • California Three Strike Law

The California Three Strike Law is a sentencing method which can result in a defendant receiving up to twenty-five years to life if they are found guilty of three violent felonies in the state. This sentencing is defined under penal code 667.

Three Strikes Law will double the sentence for one convicted of any California felony who already has two violent felony priors. If convicted as a 'second striker,' your penalty can also be doubled.

  • Penal Code 211- Robbery

The California penal code, section 211 defines the theft offense of robbery. It is a criminal act to take the personal property of another either off their person or from their property against their will. The theft offense of robbery refers to taking another's property through the use of force. A robbery is charged as a felony in California.

You would be arrested for first-degree robbery if you:

  • Robbed a driver or passenger of a streetcar, taxi, cable car, bus, or other forms of public transportation
  • Robbed a person in an inhabited structure
  • Robbed a person who has just taken a withdrawal from an ATM

These first-degree robbery convictions would result in sentencing from three to nine years in prison. If convicted of second-degree robbery, it could result in two, three, or five years in prison.

There are a number of legal defenses against robbery, and a good criminal defense lawyer will consider all possible defenses. Two potential defenses include: If the accused did not use force when the property was taken, or the accused had an honest and reasonable (but incorrect) belief that he or she had a right to the property. Another defense against a robbery charge is that the accused is the victim of mistaken identity, or he or she has been falsely accused by the victim.

  • Penal Code 10851 VC- Vehicular Theft

Under California’s penal code 10851 VC, it states it is a crime for a person to take another’s vehicle without that person’s permission. This crime is often referred to as ‘joyriding.’

There are several legal defenses your criminal defense attorney can investigate, including:

  • You had a claim of right over the vehicle
  • You had the owner’s consent to take the vehicle
  • You had acted under duress (someone else forced you to take the vehicle)

If convicted of the theft offense for vehicular theft, it is a 'wobbler,' and the prosecution can either file as a misdemeanor or a felony. If filed as a misdemeanor, you are facing one year in jail, and if registered as a felony, you could receive a sentence of up to three years in prison.

Penalties are more severe for vehicular theft if you have taken an ambulance, police car, fire department truck, or other emergency response vehicle. Penalties are also harsher if you have a prior conviction on your record of either joyriding or a felony grand theft.

  • Penal Code section 484-487-Larceny

California penal codes 484 through 487 cover theft and larceny laws. Many states consider these two crimes to be separate; however, in California, these two terms are often interchanged. You can be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony when convicted of larceny. The value of the property taken will determine which charge is filed.

Petty larceny is listed under penal code section 484. It is intentional and unlawfully taking of another's property with the intention to deprive the other of his or her property permanently (you have no intention of returning the property to the owner). Larceny can include a number of crimes, including robbery, identity theft, forgery, embezzlement, or receiving stolen goods. You can also be charged with larceny in California if you do not return rented or leased property.

Grand larceny is defined under penal code 487 and is determined by the value of the property taken, and whether or not the property was an animal or weapon. Grand larceny is charged if:

  • The property taken is valued at more than $950
  • If the stolen property consists of fowl, vegetables, nuts, or produce valued at more than $250
  • The property stolen is kelp, shellfish, fish, or other aquacultural product with a value of more than $250
  • A vehicle
  • A weapon
  • The property taken is a dead cow, pig, horse, mule, or a portion of a carcass of any of these types of livestock

You can be charged with larceny if you lead, drive away, carry, or move property that belongs to someone else to keep it permanently (no intention of returning the property to the owner). Before the prosecution can convict you of larceny, it has to be proven:

  • You took the property of someone else, and it was found on your person or in an area under your control
  • You were not given permission to take possession of the property
  • You moved the property in question and kept it, no matter what the distance it was moved
  • You intended to deprive the owner of the property permanently, and this intent was present before or during the commission of the crime

Being convicted of petty larceny will mean you face up to six months in jail with a fine up to $1,000. If you are convicted of grand larceny, it is a wobble and can either be filed as a misdemeanor or felony. Grand larceny charged as a felony can result in a prison sentence of three years.

  • Penal Code Section 484(e)- Credit Card Fraud

It is a crime under California law to steal a person’s debit or credit card, or their debit information.

There are some legal defenses against this charge, including you did not intend to defraud anyone, you did not steal the card, or you acted out of necessity (you had to take the card to avoid even more significant harm).

If convicted of credit card fraud, and the prosecution determines it should be enhanced to grand theft under penal code 48, it could be filed as a wobbler and result in either a misdemeanor or felony.

  • Penal Code Section 484 and 495.5- Theft as Shoplifting

Penal code sections 484(a) and 488 covers the definition of theft and states it is a crime to carry away property that belongs to another person and is valued less than $950. The intent with petty theft is to permanently deprive the owner of the property (you have no intention of returning the property to its owner). If the theft occurred in a commercial building and the facts conform to the elements set forth in Penal Code section 495.5, the crime is referred to as shoplifting.

After the enactment of Proposition 47, PC section 459.5 was written to define shoplifting as being the theft of goods, not exceeding $950, from a business during the hours the business is open. Whether the accused entered the business with the intent to steal (formerly this would be considered commercial burglary and DA’s would be able to file such charges a felony or misdemeanor, no what the value of the goods stolen), or only developed the intent while in the store, PC 459.5 defines both as shoplifting as long as the theft was done during the business’s open hours and the accused does not fall into an exception.

Even if the value of the stolen goods do not exceed $950, the law includes exceptions which allow a prosecutor to file a felony theft charge or felony commercial burglary. For example, if the defendant has a prior criminal conviction for certain offenses, such as certain “strikes” or a conviction for a sex offense requiring registration under PC section 290, that defendant could be charged with a felony, which carries a maximum of three years in jail

If convicted of shoplifting or petty theft under penal code 484(a), you could face up to six months in jail with a possible fine of up to $1,000. The conviction can also impact you negatively for years, if not your lifetime. It can affect your immigration status and could have negative consequences on a person who is searching for new employment.

Legal defense for this charge can refer to your state of mind at the time the theft occurred. If you genuinely believed you had a claim to the property, even if that belief is mistaken, it can be used as a defense. You could have also mistakenly placed an item in your bag while shopping and did not intend to take it without paying. Attorney Ann Gottesman will work with you to try to reduce or dismiss these charges.

  • Penal Code Section 487(a) - Grand Theft

Penal Code Section 487(a) is a division of penal code 487 and is referred to as Grand Carcass. This crime is related to stolen food or livestock, which is valued at more than $250. As a subdivision of penal code 487, this theft involves agricultural products or livestock, such as horses, avocados, mules, hogs, etc., which is considered grand theft.

For the prosecution to convict you of this charge, it must be proven:

  • You took the agriculture or livestock which is owned by another person
  • You took the agriculture or livestock without the consent of the owner
  • You moved the agriculture or livestock and held it for a period of time

If convicted of grand theft (grand carcass), the penalties will depend on a number of factors in your case. This crime can be filed as a misdemeanor or a felony.

  • Penal Code Section 459- Burglary

California's penal code section 459 defines the criminal act of burglary. This crime is charged when someone enters a structure, locked vehicle, or room to commit a theft or felony crime. Burglary is complete once this person enters the area intending to remove the property, whether or not the act was finished or not. There are two levels of burglary under California law:

  • The first-degree burglary involves the burglary of a residence or an inhabited dwelling, and can carry a sentence of up to 6 years in prison.
  • Second-degree burglary involves the burglary of any other form of structure, including stores, cars, warehouses, etc., which can carry up to three years in jail.

The facts of the case are very important in determining whether a burglary is a first or second degree burglary. To be a first degree felony burglary, the accused has to enter an inhabited dwelling or a structure that is attached to an inhabited dwelling. And “inhabited” does not mean that the residents must actually be home at the time the accused enters the structure. An attached garage is considered by law to be part of the inhabited dwelling (the home) but a detached garage is not.

For example, if an accused enters the attached garage with the intent to steal tools and never enters the main home, that could still be charged as first degree burglary because the law recognizes an attached garage as part of the home. Conversely, if an accused enters another garage with the same intent to steal tools, and that garage is detached from the home, he could only be charged with second degree burglary.

Legal defense for burglary can include you did not have an intent to commit a crime at the time you entered the building, or that the property you took belonged to you, or you believed there was a legitimate claim to it. Another defense is a case of mistaken identity and that you did commit the crime.

The crime of first degree burglary is a felony, while commercial burglary is a ‘wobbler’ offense in California. When a crime is a “wobbler”, it means the prosecution can either file it as a felony or a misdemeanor.

  • Penal Code Section 211- Armed Robbery

Penal code Section 211 for the theft offense of armed robbery is defined as a felonious criminal act. This act involves taking one's property from them or from their immediate presence, against their will. This theft is accomplished by means of fear or force.

The intent in an armed robbery must have been formed prior to the act or during the act, and force has to be a factor. If there was no intent until after using fear or force, then it cannot be classified as robbery. For the prosecution to convict on a charge of armed robbery, they must prove:

  • The property taken did not belong to you
  • The property was taken from another’s possession or immediate presence
  • The property was taken from the victim against their will
  • You used force or fear to take the property from the owner
  • When the property was taken, you intended to deprive them of any future use of the property (you were never going to return the property to the owner)

Legal defense against this charge is that you had a belief the property belonged to you, even if the belief is unreasonable or mistaken. Another possible defense could exist if the accused was not intending to take the property, but did so only as a result of instilling fear in the victim. Defense attorney Ann Gottesman will review your case and determine which defenses or legal arguments best apply in your case.

  • Penal Code Section 503- Embezzlement

California's penal code 503 is in reference to the criminal act of embezzlement. This crime is considered a white-collar crime and involves a person taking property or money unlawfully that has been entrusted to him or her by another person. This crime is sometimes referred to as employee theft, but embezzlement can be applied anytime there is the unlawful taking of property or money that has been entrusted to your care.

For the prosecution to convict you on embezzlement, it must prove:

  • You had been entrusted to care for the property or money
  • The owner entrusted you with the care because they trusted you
  • You fraudulently converted or used the property for your own benefit
  • When you fraudulently converted the property, you did not intend to return it to the owner

Possible defense against an embezzlement charge may include: You had a belief the property or money belonged to you, you did not use the property in a fraudulent way, or you never intended to deprive the owner of the property. Of course, mistaken identity is always a defense as well.

If the embezzlement is not over $950, the offense is a misdemeanor with a six month possible sentence in jail. If the embezzled amount is over $950, the prosecution can proceed with felony charges which can bring a maximum sentence of three years in jail.

  • Penal Code 186.10 - Money Laundering

Channeling or transacting money you've obtained from illegitimate sources until it appears 'clean,' is a criminal act in California and is defined under penal code 186.10. This financial crime occurs when an accused engages or attempts to engage in a transaction through a bank, and such transactions involve use of funds valued at more than $5000 in a seven-day period or more than $25,000 in a thirty day period. The accused further must be shown to have committed these transactions with the intent to promote a crime or with the knowledge that the funds were obtained from criminal acts.

Depending on the amount of the funds laundered, one could find themselves defending against such charges in federal court or state court. The prosecution has discretion to file money laundering charges as misdemeanors or felonies. The sentences can range from a misdemeanor sentence of up to one year in jail plus fines, or a felony sentence of up to 4 years in custody, plus fines.

As far as a defense to money laundering charges, an accused cannot be convicted if the prosecution can’t prove the defendant had the intent or knowledge that the funds were obtained through criminal acts. Or, if the amount of funds involved was less than $5000, an accused would not be guilty under this statute. Mistaken identity and entrapment are also possible defenses.

Taking someone’s personal information such as their social security number, financial account numbers, and name is considered identity theft and is a criminal act in California. Almost anyone can be prey to this crime.

Having another’s personal information does not necessarily mean identity theft. For the prosecution to convict you of identity theft, it must be proven the accused did one of the following acts:

  • The accused took a person’s “personal identifying information” as defined in subdivision (b) of Section 530.55, without their permission and used it for an unlawful purpose, or
  • The accused took the information without the owner’s permission and intended to commit fraud, or
  • The accused sold, transferred or gave to another, the victim’s personal information without their consent and with the intent to commit fraud, or
  • The accused sold, transferred, or conveyed the victim’s personal information knowing it was going to be used without their consent to commit fraud.

Legal defense to an identity theft charge can include: you did not have an intent to commit fraud, or have an unlawful purpose when using the information. Another defense would be if you are a computer service and were using the information for anything other than a criminal act. If the victim gave you permission to conduct the transaction or use their personal identifying information, you would not be guilty of identity theft.

Defense for Theft Offenses

Depending on the facts of your case, there may be a good defense to your charges, or the evidence may be too weak for the prosecution to secure a conviction. Mitigating factors and collateral consequences may also be relevant to reduce a charge or convince the prosecution to offer a diversion program that would provide you an opportunity to earn a dismissal or infraction.

Ann Gottesman works hard to defend her clients during one of the most difficult and frightening times in their life. She has compassion and understanding that she brings to each client and their case.

Find Legal Help for Theft Offenses Near Me

Theft offense convictions can carry anywhere from a minimum sentence with no jail time, to a harsh sentence involving several years in custody. Such charges on one’s criminal record can have a long-standing negative impact on a person’s career, reputation and freedom. It is important to have an experienced and hard-working criminal defense lawyer representing you in court when faced with charges involving theft.

If you are facing theft charges, attorney Ann Gottesman welcomes you to contact her to discuss your case. She will use her legal knowledge and skills to defend you and advocate for your side. Call attorney Ann Gottesman for a free consultation at 626-710-4021.