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

Petty theft occurs very commonly in connection with shoplifting, (theft from a retail store). Petty theft also occurs commonly in places or settings 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 business or a retail store by placing the merchandise in a pocket or purse. However, many other acts can be classified as petty theft. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve the actual lifting of property. 

Some common examples of petty theft include:

  • Switching or changing price tags on merchandise so that you pay less;
  • Putting more a valuable item into different packaging for a less valuable item;
  • “Eat and run”: not paying for food consumed in a restaurant;
  • Watching a movie in a theater without paying for it (such as sneaking into the theater or staying in the theater too long); and
  • Eating inside a store and not paying for it (such as at a grocery store).

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

Is Theft Classified as a Felony?

In most states, grand theft is classified as a felony, even for a first-time offender. However, petty theft is typically classified as a misdemeanor for first-time offenders in most states. For example, a first offense for petty theft  in California is a misdemeanor, punishable by a monetary fine and possible time in jail (usually up to one year maximum). 

On the other hand, petty theft can sometimes result in felony charges for repeat offenders, depending on state laws. The difference between felony charges and misdemeanors are very great, especially when it comes to the person’s criminal record. 

For instance, felonies will usually result in higher criminal fines and more than one year in a state prison facility (not a county jail). Felony convictions are also 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 the person goes to apply for a job.   

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

Are There Any Defenses Available to Petty Theft Charges?

There may be some defenses available to a defendant in a petty theft case. The availability of such defenses can depend on several factors, including state laws, as well as the exact circumstances and details surrounding the theft incident.  

Possible defenses to petty theft can include:

  • Mistake: It can sometimes be a defense if the defendant reasonably believed that they owned the property or item that was stolen.
  • Lack of Intent: Most theft crimes require that the person intend to permanently deprive the owner of the object or property. If the defendant did not intend to deprive the owner of their property (for instance, they believed they were just borrowing it), it can serve as a defense.
  • False Accusation: It may be a defense if a person was wrongfully accused or if there was an issue with mistaken identity.
  • Evidence Issues: Evidence for a criminal trial must be obtained through proper procedures. If evidence was not obtained correctly, it will be excluded from use in court, which can affect the outcome of the case. 
    • An example of this is where the police failed to obtain a search warrant (if one is needed) before conducting a search in connection with the petty theft charges.
  • Coercion/Duress: This defense may be applied in situations where the defendant was forced to commit a petty theft crime under threat of harm or injury. For instance, if they are held at gunpoint and forced to steal an object.

Other defenses may apply, depending on the situation. A criminal lawyer can help research laws to determine what types of defenses are available to a defendant facing petty theft charges.

Should I Hire a Lawyer if I’m Facing Petty Theft Charges?

The term “petty theft” can be somewhat misleading. While petty theft is usually 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 in your area. Your lawyer can inform you of any theft defenses that might be available in your specific case. Petty theft laws can be very different in each jurisdiction or region.