Petty theft is a type of theft crime that is based on the low value of the stolen property. Most states divide theft laws into two categories- grand theft and petty theft. In many states, theft of property worth over $400-$500 is considered to be grand theft. All other thefts are classified as petty theft.

Petty theft occurs most commonly in connection with shoplifting, (theft from a retail store). Petty theft also occurs in places where the defendant is on the premises lawfully - otherwise it would result in burglary charges rather than petty theft charges. 

What Are Some Examples of Petty Theft?

The most common example of petty theft is where a person steals from a store by placing the merchandise in a pocket or purse. However, many other types of conduct can be classified as petty theft- it doesn’t always have to involve the actual lifting of property. 

Some common examples of petty theft are:

  • Switching price tags on merchandise so that you pay less
  • Putting more a valuable item into packaging for a less valuable item
  • “Eat and run”- not paying for food eaten in a restaurant
  • “Watch and run”- not paying for movies viewed in a theater
  • Eating inside a store and not paying for it

Note that many people would not consider some of the actions listed above as a theft. However, ignorance of the law is no excuse; just because a person thinks they aren’t committing a theft doesn’t mean that they won’t face criminal charges if they are caught.

Is Theft a Felony?

In most states, grand theft is considered a felony, even for a first-time offender. However, petty theft is usually classified as a misdemeanor for first-time offenders. For example, a petty theft first offense in California is a misdemeanor, punishable by a monetary fine and possible time in jail.

On the other hand, petty theft can result in felony charges for repeat offenders. The difference between felony charges and misdemeanors are very great, especially when it comes to the person’s criminal record. Felonies are much more difficult to get erased from a criminal record. This can make all the difference when it comes to background checks, for example when applying for a job.   

Therefore repeat petty theft offenses can often stay on a person’s criminal record for a very long time. This can affect the person’s chances in other areas of life, such as rental applications, licensing applications, or when applying to graduate school. 

Should I Hire a Lawyer for Petty Theft Charges?

The term “petty theft” can therefore be somewhat misleading. While petty theft is considered a minor offense, the legal consequences are not always “petty”. If you are facing petty theft criminal charges, you may wish to hire a criminal defense lawyer. Your lawyer can inform you of any theft defenses that might be available in your case.  Petty theft laws can be very different in each jurisdiction.