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What Is Theft?

Theft can be defined as the wrongful assumption of the property of another, often through the taking and carrying away of that property, with the intent to deprive the person of the property permanently. This definition is full of elements, each of which must be present for theft to occur.

Theft is a broad category that encompasses several specific crimes:

What Is the "Wrongfulness" Element?

When you take and carry something away, it only constitutes theft if it is wrongful. If you do not have a right to the property, your taking of it is wrongful.

What Is a "Taking"?

A taking occurs when you have some amount of control over the property, even if briefly. You can have control over property without even touching it. For example, if you sell someone's car without their permission, you have taken the car, even if you did not physically touch it. You do not need to actually touch something to take it.

How Do I "Carry Away" Something?

The carrying away element is met when the property is moved, even slightly, from its original place. Simply shuffling or rearranging property will not usually constitute carrying away, but even a slight movement, such as moving an item from one shelf to another shelf in a store can satisfy this requirement.

What Kinds of "Property" Count?

For there to be a theft, some property must be taken and carried away. Property used to only include moveable property, but modern statutes have made it such that most everything can be considered property. A list of the main types of property includes: 

What Does It Mean for the Property to Be "Of Another?"

Property is "of another" if it is someone else's property. Generally, a person cannot be convicted of a theft crime if the property that they took was their own. This means that the property must belong to another person who did not give consent or permission for it to be deprived.

When Do I Have the "Intent to Deprive Permanently?"

In order for your wrongful taking and carrying away of the property of another to constitute theft, you must intend to take the property from the owner and make it yours.  It is not theft if you just intend to borrow the property, although that does not necessarily mean you are off the hook. Also, in many states, if there is a substantial risk of loss involved with your taking (e.g., in joyriding cases), then the requisite intent is implied from the taking and subsequent actions following the taking.

Is Theft a Felony or Misdemeanor?

The answer to this question usually depends on the value of the property that is taken. In most states, if the value is over $400, it is considered grand theft, which is typically classified as a felony. Theft of property valued at $400 or less is usually petty theft and a misdemeanor.

What Are the Penalties For Theft?

Penalties for theft crimes will vary depending on the type of crime involved. For petty theft, shoplifting, and other less serious theft crimes, a citation may be issued. Punishment for a citation may involve a fine and other less serious penalties such as community service.

For more serious misdemeanor theft crimes, the penalties begin to increase to include higher fines. Jail time may be introduced, especially for repeat offenses. However, jail sentences for misdemeanors do not usually exceed one year.

For felony theft offenses, including burglary and armed robbery, penalties can include prison sentences of greater than one year and higher criminal fines. The defendant may also be required to pay criminal restitution to the victim, which is similar to a damages award in a civil case.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have Been Accused of Theft?

Anytime that you are accused of a crime, you should consult a criminal lawyer as soon as possible. There are many different types of theft, and each type has its own defenses. A lawyer can advise you of your rights and defenses and help you with the complicated legal system.

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Last Modified: 09-22-2015 11:27 AM PDT

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