In American law, the term theft is defined as a criminal act in which property belonging to another is intentionally taken without that person’s consent. While the term is often used interchangeably with the crime of larceny, theft actually refers to an extensive category of law known as, theft crimes or property crimes.
Some of the types of offenses that fall under the umbrella of theft and property crimes include larceny, burglary, and grand theft.
The reason why theft and larceny are commonly treated as synonyms is due to the differences found in state law. For instance, some states have merged larceny with general theft statutes, while others have opted to keep larceny as its own separate category. The majority of states, however, consider larceny a separate offense from theft.
Also, even though most states generally recognize the differences between the two, a more specific and applicable definition of theft may still vary depending on the laws of each state. The same holds true for larceny.
Thus, when dealing with a matter involving charges for theft, it is important to know which method your state has adopted, the specific definition that applies in your state, and the type of theft that the crime is being categorized as because the resulting legal consequences will depend on it.
The best way to determine the answers to these questions is to contact a local criminal defense attorney for assistance.
As discussed in the above section, the definition of theft may vary according to state laws. Therefore, the elements of theft generally include some form of the following:
- The taking of another person’s property;
- Without their consent or authorization; and
- With the intent to deprive the person of that property.
In addition to what may be required by state statutes, these elements can also change depending on the type of theft. This can be determined by analyzing the kind of property that the theft involves and the value of the stolen property.
As mentioned, the elements that are required to prove theft can change depending on the state and type of theft that was committed. These include:
- Larceny: Larceny is the unlawful taking and carrying away of another’s property with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of that property. Larceny is different from theft because it usually refers only to a person’s tangible or personal property (e.g., jewelry or a book). Also, although larceny is a type of theft, a theft is not always considered larceny;
- Embezzlement: Embezzlement occurs when a person who is entrusted to handle the finances (e.g., an employee or bookkeeper) of another person or business, illegally takes the money for their own personal use;
- Receiving Stolen Property: It is a crime to purchase or accept property that a person knows or should have known was obtained through theft. In addition to these two elements, the defendant also needs to have the intent to deprive the owner of their property, such as by selling it or keeping it;
- Extortion: Extortion, which is similar to blackmail, involves the taking of money, services, or property through force by means of threat or intimidation. The threats do not need to be followed through on immediately. They can be carried out at some later time in the future;
- Burglary and Robbery: The elements of burglary consist of the unlawful breaking and entering into another person’s home or building for the purpose of committing a felony therein. Burglary becomes the crime of robbery when the individual commits a theft with the use of threat or force. Also, robbery will be elevated to the crime of armed robbery if it involves the use of a weapon.
- One other element that differs between the two is that burglary requires a breaking and entering, whereas robbery does not;
- Theft by Deception: There are two kinds of theft by deception. The first is called false pretenses. The second is known as larceny by trick.
- False Pretenses: This happens when one person obtains title (ownership) to the personal property of another by means of an intentionally false statement of past or existing fact with the intent to defraud the other person.
- Larceny by Trick: Unlike false pretenses, larceny by trick only involves convincing someone to give you possession (as opposed to ownership) of their property.
- For example, if you tell a person you need to borrow their car and they lend it to you, but you never intend to return it, then it will be considered larceny by trick.
Theft can also be classified by the value of the stolen property, which includes:
- Petty Theft: Petty theft is the theft of anything with a value that is below a legally specified amount of money. In most states, the theft of anything with a value of less than $400 is usually deemed a petty theft. Petty theft is a misdemeanor crime; and
- Grand Theft: In contrast, grand theft is the theft of anything above a legally specified value (usually over $400) and is considered a felony. Hence, the phrase “grand theft auto.”
If you have been accused of theft, you should strongly consider hiring a local criminal defense attorney. They will be able to inform you about your rights, the theft law that applies in both your state as well as to your case, and can provide representation in court on the matter.
An experienced criminal defense lawyer can also assess the outcome of your case, including the types of consequences that you may be facing, and whether there are any defenses available to help your case.
If you are the victim of a theft, you should contact the police immediately. The police will be able to determine whether there is sufficient enough evidence to charge a suspect. From there, one of two things can happen.
The first is that if the police conclude that there is sufficient evidence, then they will forward your case to the relevant prosecutor’s officer to initiate legal proceedings (prosecute) the potential person who committed the theft crime against you. The prosecutor will then decide whether or not to take the case.
The second is that if the police or prosecutor decides that they are not taking the case, then you should strongly consider contacting a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney will be able to properly assess the matter, what rights you have, and can determine whether or not you should bring a case against the suspect privately.