In California, the severity of a theft crime is based on the value of the stolen money, goods, or services. If the property is valued at less than $950, the offense is considered petty theft, a misdemeanor crime. Anyone charged with petty theft should call a skilled criminal defense attorney in San Diego to discuss their case. Remember that what you say can be used against you, so always speak to an attorney before talking to the police.
Defining Petty Theft in California
Most thefts that do not involve firearms, vehicles, or violence against the victim are either grand or petty theft. If you have been accused of stealing a firearm, you may face grand theft charges regardless of the weapon’s value. Grand theft charges are detailed under California Penal Code section 487 (PC), whereas petty theft is addressed under section 484 (PC).
The difference between the two charges is that petty theft is a misdemeanor charge that occurs when the stolen property is valued at under $950, and when the property is valued at more than that, it is grand theft.
Do I need a Lawyer for Petty Theft?
While most people see the need to hire an attorney when facing grand theft charges, it is common for people to question whether they really need a lawyer for petty theft charges. When the value of the goods is close to the $950 dividing line between these two offenses, a defense attorney can often convince the prosecution to file the charges as petty theft. It can be beneficial to have the charges reduced because while grand theft can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony, petty theft is always a misdemeanor.
When the value of the stolen items is lower, petty theft charges may occasionally be dropped at the request of the property owner if you pay them back the full value of the stolen property —though this should not be attempted without the help of a criminal attorney familiar with this process. Alternatively, your lawyer may be able to have petty theft charges reduced to an infraction rather than a misdemeanor by working with the prosecution. Having the charges reduced is quite beneficial because a misdemeanor charge requires a defendant to go through the book and release process at the jail, and it will count as a prior conviction on your record, whereas infractions merely result in a fine and do not appear on your criminal record.
Defenses to Petty Theft
While having the charges dropped or reduced is a good option, in some cases, it is best to fight the charges. There are a lot of potential defenses against this crime. Illegal search and seizure, improper arrests, false accusations, and more can result in the charges getting dropped. Similarly, your San Diego criminal defense attorney could argue that you did not intend to take the item or that the item was yours to begin with. Always remain silent until you speak to a lawyer, as trying to explain your situation may end up hurting your defense later.
Penalties and Related Crimes
Under 484 (PC), a petty theft conviction in California can result in a sentence of up to 6 months in jail and $1,000 in fines, but probation is commonly given in place of incarceration. In contrast, grand theft can be charged as a felony or misdemeanor. As a misdemeanor, it is punishable by up to 1 year in jail, and as a felony, it is punishable by up to 3 years in prison.
While the penalties for petty theft may not be particularly severe, it is still wise to fight the charges, as a theft conviction on your criminal record can negatively impact your ability to find a good job or home in the future. California allows people charged with some misdemeanors, including petty theft, to receive misdemeanor diversion. Successful completion of diversion means there is no actual conviction. This option results in the dismissal of the charges and the criminal record sealing. Diversion is typically for 18 months and usually requires an anti-theft class, volunteer work, and restitution to the store.
If you do not go through a diversion program and are convicted of petty theft by larceny, fraud, embezzlement, or trick, you can have the offense expunged later so it will not count against you when seeking employment or housing.
Those accused of this offense also frequently face other charges, including shoplifting, fraud, burglary, embezzlement, mail theft, or dining and dashing. When you face more than one charge, hiring a skilled defense lawyer is particularly important because the penalties can quickly add up —especially if any offenses are charged as felonies.