Elements of Theft

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 What is Theft?

Simply put, theft is taking someone else’s property with the intent to permanently deprive them of that property. It doesn’t include unintentionally depriving someone of property, such as failing to return a borrowed tool. To be theft, the thief must have intended to make the property their own.

The names “theft” and “larceny” are commonly treated as synonyms, and indeed some states have merged larceny with general theft statutes. However, others have opted to keep larceny as its own separate category. Larceny differs from theft because it usually includes only the victim’s tangible or personal property (e.g., jewelry or a book).

General theft includes items of personal property, but it also includes real estate, intellectual property, services, and more types of property. Thus, every larceny is a type of theft, but not every theft is an act of larceny.

Thus, the specific and locally applicable definitions of theft and larceny can vary depending on the laws of each individual state. For that reason, when dealing with theft charges, it is important to know which specific definition applies in your state and the type of theft the prosecutor alleges.

If a conviction exists, the resulting legal consequences may depend on the theft/larceny distinction. The best way to determine the answers to these questions is to contact a local criminal defense attorney for assistance.

The “elements” of a crime are the things that need to be proven to convict someone of the specific crime. Although they can vary from state to state, as noted above, the elements of theft generally include some form of the following:

  1. The taking of someone else’s property
  2. Without their consent or authorization
  3. With the intent to deprive the person of that property

What are Some Types of Theft?

In addition to larceny, theft includes other more specific categories of stealing. There are additional elements that must be proven for a specific category. These include:

  • Embezzlement: Embezzlement occurs when a person entrusted to handle the finances or accounts of another person or business (for example, an accountant or a bookkeeper) illegally takes the money for their own personal use. To prove embezzlement, the prosecutor must prove the general elements of theft, plus the facts concerning the trust placed in the defendant.
  • Receiving Stolen Property: It is a crime to purchase or accept property that a person knows or should have known was obtained through theft. This can be a difficult crime because it is always hard to prove someone knew something if they claim it surprised them.
  • Extortion: Extortion, which is similar to blackmail, involves the taking of money, services, or property through force using threat or intimidation. The threats do not need to be taken immediately. They can be carried out at some later time in the future.
  • Robbery and Burglary: Robbery is essentially theft plus violence. In a robbery, the thief forces the victim to turn over the property using physical violence, intimidation, or threats. The use of a weapon to commit this crime is called armed robbery.
    • Burglary is not, per se, a theft offense. Burglary consists of unlawful breaking and entering another person’s home or building to commit a felony while inside. Burglary becomes the crime of robbery when the individual commits a theft using threat or force.
  • 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 using an intentionally false statement of past or present fact 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 below a legally specified amount of money. In most states, the theft of anything with a value of less than $400 is usually deemed petty theft. Petty theft is a misdemeanor crime. By definition, misdemeanors cannot be punished with more than 365 days of jail time
  • Grand Theft: In contrast, grand theft is the theft of anything above a legally specified value (usually over $400) and is considered a felony. Felonies are all those crimes that can be punished by more than 365 days’ prison time – i.e., anything that is not a misdemeanor

What If I am the Victim of a Theft?

If you are the victim of a theft, you should contact the police immediately. Once they have found the thief, the police can determine whether sufficient evidence is enough to charge the suspect with the crime. From there, one of two things can happen:

  • The first is that if the police conclude that there is sufficient evidence to bring a criminal action, they will forward your case to the relevant prosecutor’s office to prosecute the person who committed the theft crime against you.
    • Upon receiving the case from the police, the prosecutor will then decide whether or not to take the case and begin a prosecution. They may tell the police that the evidence is currently insufficient and the police need to do more investigation. The prosecutor will tell the police exactly what is missing. The police will take up the investigation again and will hopefully find the piece of evidence that the prosecutor needs to file a case against the alleged thief.
  • 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 to sue the defendant. Completely separate from the state’s criminal prosecution of someone, the victim has the right to bring a civil action against the culprit for monetary damages. The amount you could be awarded includes the value of the property that was taken, and in some cases, you could be awarded money for any emotional distress and physical pain and suffering you have gone through.
    • In some cases, the jury will even award punitive damages, a very high monetary award. Punitive damages are meant as a penalty designed to prevent the defendant from ever doing this again. An attorney will be able to properly assess the matter, analyze your rights, and determine whether or not you should bring a case against the suspect privately.

Should I Hire a Lawyer if I Have Been Accused of Theft?

If you have been accused of theft, you should strongly consider hiring a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An experienced criminal lawyer can review your charges, answer any questions, and inform you of your rights. A lawyer can also assess the outcome of your case, including the types of consequences you may be facing and whether any defenses are available to help your case.

Furthermore, a criminal defense lawyer can work with the prosecutor to negotiate the best outcome regarding your punishment. If negotiations aren’t successful, your attorney can represent you in court if necessary.

You need a lawyer even more if you are innocent of the crime you have been charged with. The odds are stacked against you, and you will need good advice and direction to obtain a favorable outcome.


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