Petty Theft Law

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 What is the Definition Petty Theft?

Petty theft is a lower value theft crime. Most states classify theft as either petty theft or grand theft; however, not all do this so it is important to know your specific state laws when dealing with a theft crime.

Generally, under most state criminal laws, petty theft is defined as taking another’s personal property with the intent to steal and/or to deprive the owner of using the property. The state law will set a value threshold for the property to be considered petty theft. For example, in California the property value needs to be $950 or less to be classified as petty theft. Otherwise, it will be classified as grand theft.

Petty theft generally occurs in shoplifting or similar situations. The person will usually be on the premises lawfully, otherwise it could be looked at as burglary. Think about someone shoplifting at a retail store during business hours versus breaking into the store after hours to steal an item to distinguish between theft and burglary. However, you should always check relevant state laws to determine what category a crime will fall into so you can anticipate how serious the consequences could be for your actions.

What Are Some Examples of Petty Theft?

Your state law will determine the value threshold for petty theft. With retail theft, the valuation process is simpler because the items will have a price tag. In absence of this, courts will look at fair market value to determine how much a piece of property is worth.

Some common examples of petty theft include:

  • Stealing a shirt from a store at the mall;
  • Leaving a restaurant without paying for you meal (frequently referred to as “dining and dashing”);
  • Switching out a price tag on an item so you will actually pay less that it costs;
  • Sneaking into a movie theater or amusement park and then enjoying the services offered to paying guests;
  • Borrowing something from someone and not giving it back on purpose; and
  • Stealing cash from another person.

As you can see, petty theft can be so much more than just shoplifting. Many people may not realize this. One important thing to remember is that when certain items like firearms are involved, even when valued low enough to be considered petty theft, most states will view it as grand theft instead. This escalation to a higher crime is because of the danger typically associated with firearms.

Is Theft Classified as a Felony?

Theft can be classified as either a misdemeanor or felony. It will just depend on your state’s laws and the circumstances surrounding the crime. Generally, the following is true for most theft crimes:

  • Petty theft is classified as a misdemeanor for first time offenders;
  • Sometimes petty theft will escalate to a felony for repeat offenders;
  • Sometimes petty theft will be considered an infraction or the person could get off with a warning, especially when dealing with juveniles or people having no prior criminal record;
  • Grand theft will almost always be classified as a felony, even for first time offenders; and
  • Aggravated theft (where a weapon is involved) and burglary will be felonies with greater punishments.

Keep in mind that the worse your criminal record is, the higher chance that even a small petty theft charge will end up with a felony or larger consequences.

What are the Consequences for Petty Theft? 

Since petty theft is a less serious crime, the consequences will usually be more mild. This is especially true for first time offenders. If you are charged with a misdemeanor, some typical petty theft consequences include small monetary fines and probation. Sometimes, a more rehabilitative option will be on the sentencing table like having to attend theft support groups. This could be ideal for repeat shoplifters who can show they have a problem based on addiction to shoplifting. However, this is a rarer option that will likely be in conjunction with other penalties like a fine and probation.

One question people wonder about is if you can ever get jail time for petty theft. The answer to this question is yes. For misdemeanor petty theft, the limit for jail time is usually six months to a year. However, for first offenses this will likely not be factored into your sentence. For felony charges, the jail time could be over a year.

Keep in mind that sometimes you can get a criminal conviction erased from your record. This will be easier with misdemeanors but much harder for petty theft felonies and repeat offenders. Any theft charges that are more serious, like those involving weapons or burglary, will also be harder to get removed from your criminal record. This process is typically referred to as expungement, and involves petitioning the court to get the record removed like it was never there. Another option for juveniles is sealing the record, which means it can still be accessed via court order.

Are There Any Defenses Available to Petty Theft Charges?

If you are charged with criminal petty theft, you may be able to assert some defenses in court. First, understand that ignorance of law will not be a valid defense. Take the situation discussed above where you borrow something and do not return it. If you did not think that was a crime but your state law says it is, this does not mean you can get petty theft charges dropped against you. 

There would need to be some other valid defense, like the following examples:

  • You mistakenly thought you owned the property, however, this belief needs to be reasonable and backed by evidence. A text message saying you planned to take an item from someone else would negate this;
  • There was no intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property. In the situation discussed above, if you borrowed an item but can prove there was intent to return it, then this could be a defense. Just as with the mistake example, a text message saying you planned to take an item from someone else and not just simply borrow it would negate this defense;
  • Wrongful accusations or mistaken identity of the person charged;
  • Improper evidentiary procedures, like police seizing evidence without a lawful search warrant; and
  • There was coercion or duress involved, like a third-party holding a knife to you and saying they will harm you if you did not steal an item from a store.

Whether you will be able to assert these defenses in court will depend on the facts of your case. If you can offer enough evidence to convince the judge that a defense is valid, then you may be able to get the charges dropped and would not have petty theft on your criminal record.

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

If you are facing petty theft charges, it is a good idea to contact a criminal lawyer to help with your defense. As noted above, even with misdemeanors jail time could be on the table. Having a reputable lawyer can help with your sentencing, plea agreements, and raising any potential defenses. A lawyer can also represent you at all court appearances and talk to the judge and opposing counsel on your behalf.

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