The exact legal definition of theft varies from state to state. However, theft is generally defined as intentionally removing or otherwise taking control or possession of someone else’s property, without consideration or their consent. There are different types of theft, and theft is categorized in several different ways. Being charged with theft is often dependent upon the type of property stolen, or the value of the stolen property.

An essential element to any theft crime is the unlawful taking away of property. Property can be defined broadly under criminal laws, as it can include moveable property as well as immovable property. Some examples of property which may be unlawfully taken away include, but are not limited to:

  • Real property, or things that cannot be moved, such as land and things attached the land;
  • Tangible property, or moveable property, such as cars, computers, jewelry, etc.;
  • Documents, such as certificates, bonds, money, etc.;
  • Information that may include a person’s identifying data, a company’s trade secrets, etc.; and
  • Personal services such as service of food at a restaurant.

What Is Criminal Theft? How Is Criminal Theft Different From Civil Theft?

Criminal theft is a general term that refers to crimes involving the taking away of personal property, without the owner’s consent. These crimes are prosecuted by the state, and if found guilty, a person could receive punishment consisting of fines, prison time, and/or community service. Some examples of criminal theft crimes include:

  • Larceny: Larceny refers to the taking and carrying away of the personal property belonging to another person, with the intention to permanently deprive that person of their lawful property. Felony larceny is also referred to as grand theft;
  • Petty Theft: Petty theft refers to the taking of property from another, with that property being valued under a certain amount. This amount may vary according to jurisdiction. Most states categorize the theft of property valued at less than $500 to be considered as petty theft;
  • Theft by Conversion: Theft by conversion occurs when one person lawfully obtains possession of property or funds belonging to someone else, but then converts the property or funds for their own use without the lawful owner’s permission; and
  • Theft of Lost or Mislaid Property: Theft of lost or mislaid property occurs when a person finds property that they know belongs to someone else, and keeps it without attempting to return it. It is the unlawful retention of property that has been lost or mislaid.

Civil theft refers to a tort, and is based on the intentional taking of another person’s property. Whereas criminal theft is prosecuted by the state, any injured citizen may file a lawsuit for a tort. Civil tort law addresses breaches of civil duty, rather than a contractual or general society duty. Civil torts may be intentional, such as theft by conversion.

An additional difference is that, generally, a person found guilty of civil theft cannot be sentenced to prison for their crime. Rather, the injured party, or plaintiff, will file a lawsuit in a civil court in order to recover money or the stolen property. The accused, or defendant, will be found either liable for the theft, or not liable for the theft. If the defendant is found liable, they will most likely be ordered to pay the plaintiff. Thus, typically you cannot be sentenced to prison time if found liable for most civil theft.

The state has the burden of proof in criminal cases. Meaning, it is the state’s responsibility to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. There must be no doubt that the defendant took the property. However, in a civil trial, the plaintiff only needs to prove that the defendant is liable by a preponderance of evidence. What this means is that the defendant more than likely took the plaintiff’s property.

What Are the Penalties for Theft? Are There Any Defenses to a Theft Charge?

Penalties for theft depend on several factors, including:

  • Whether the theft was criminal or civil;
  • The type of the property that was stolen;
  • The value of the property that was stolen;
  • Whether a weapon or force was used when stealing the property; and
  • Whether the victim was injured.

Shoplifting from a department store would be penalized very differently than an armed robbery of the same store. Some types of theft may be considered to be a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors carry a punishment of fines not to exceed $1,000 and a possible jail sentence of no more than one year. Other types of theft may be considered to be a felony. Felonies are punishable by significantly higher fines, as well as a minimum of one year spent in a state or federal prison facility.

Each specific type of theft has its own elements that must be proven in order for a defendant to be found guilty of theft. Most crimes will require that the prosecution shows that the accused intended to commit the crime, or intended for the victim to be injured. Therefore, if the prosecution cannot prove intent, a potential defense would be that the prosecution has failed to satisfy their burden of proof.

Other common defenses to other crimes may be applied to theft charges. Some examples include coercion and intoxication.

Do I Need an Attorney for Theft Crimes?

If you are accused of theft, you should immediately consult with a skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you understand your state’s laws regarding theft, as well as ensure you are aware of the specific type of theft you may have committed.

Additionally, the attorney will protect your rights, and determine if there are any legal defenses available to you based on the specifics of your case. Finally, an attorney can represent you in court as needed.