The exact legal definition of theft may vary from state to state. However, in general, theft is defined as intentionally removing or otherwise taking possession or control of someone else’s property, without consideration or consent. There are different types of theft, and theft charges are determined by the type of property as well as the value of that property.
Some examples of theft crimes include:
- Burglary and Robbery: Burglary generally requires the unlawful breaking and entering into another person’s home, or a building, with the intent to commit a criminal offense. Committing theft with a weapon or with force then becomes robbery, although robbery does not require unlawful breaking or entering;
- Larceny: Larceny can be defined as the unlawful taking of property and carrying it away from another person, with the intent to permanently deprive that person of the property’s use;
- Embezzlement: Embezzlement occurs when someone has permission to handle someone else’s property, and converts that property for their own personal use without the permission or consent of the property’s owner. Embezzlement typically occurs when the property’s rightful owner entrusts their property to someone else who has a duty to preserve and protect the property for the benefit of the owner;
- False Pretenses: This occurs when someone acquires goods or services through false representations, with the intent to defraud. Dining and dashing is an example of this type of theft crime; and
- Theft of Lost or Mislaid Property: It is actually a crime to keep property that you know has been lost or mislaid. Typically, the law requires that the finder take all reasonable measures to return the found property, unless the property has been permanently abandoned by its owner.
The most essential element to any theft crime is the unlawful taking of property. Under criminal laws, property is a broad definition that can include both movable and immovable things. Real property includes things that cannot be moved such as land and things attached to it, like buildings.
Tangible property is moveable, such as cars and computers. Documents include stock certificates, bonds, and money. Information can include a person’s identifying data or a company’s intellectual property. Finally, personal services can include service of food at a restaurant, and hotel accommodations.
The penalties for theft vary according to the circumstances surrounding the theft. These circumstances include the type of property that was taken, the value of the stolen property, and whether a weapon or force was used when stealing the property. Further, if the victim was injured during the theft, the penalties will become more severe. For example, shoplifting from a department store would be treated very differently than an armed robbery of the same store.
Penalties and defenses to theft crimes depend on whether the crime was a misdemeanor or a felony. Misdemeanor crimes are more serious than a simple citation, but are less serious than a felony charge. Misdemeanor crimes are generally punishable by a sentence of up to one year in a county jail facility, and/or fines. Theft, larceny, and other similar crimes involving the theft of property are common examples of misdemeanor crimes.
Felony crimes, on the contrary, may result in a jail or prison sentence of many years. An example of this would be felony larceny. Although larceny would typically be a misdemeanor, it may be elevated to a felony if the property stolen is worth more than a certain value, with penalties increasing in proportion to the amount of property stolen.
For instance, misdemeanor larceny may involve stealing a single mass produced art print from a store, while felony larceny may involve stealing a large number of prints or an expensive one of a kind painting from a museum.
The defenses available to a person accused of theft will be dependent upon the type of theft committed. Each type of theft has specific elements that must be proven in order for the accused to be found guilty of the theft crime. Theft is an intent-specific crime, with the intent generally being to deprive the property’s owner of their property permanently. The most common defense is the specific intent defense.
In general, it is the prosecution’s responsibility to prove that the accused intended to commit the crime, or intended for the victim to be injured. As such, if the prosecution is unable to prove specific intent, the accused may be able to successfully argue that the prosecution has failed to satisfy their burden.
If the accused did not intend to deprive the property’s owner of their theft permanently, but was simply borrowing the property, there is a chance that they will not be convicted of theft. An example of this would be if someone is accused of stealing someone else’s laptop. In order to actually be convicted of theft, the prosecution would need to prove that the accused intended to permanently deprive the laptop’s owner of their laptop. If the accused can prove that they were simply borrowing the laptop, and fully intended to return it to its owner, they may not be convicted of theft.
The specific intent defense is entirely dependent upon the judge or jury believing the intent of the accused. Using the above example, if the accused took the laptop for three weeks without returning it and they did not have permission to take it, it is unlikely that a judge or jury will believe that they did not intend to permanently deprive the owner of the laptop.
Some examples of defenses that apply to specific variations of theft include:
- In cases of false pretense, ownership does not pass so the accused did not actually commit a false pretense theft;
- Larceny by trick only requires that possession be transferred, not ownership as well. Therefore, the accused may need to utilize the specific intent defense even if they got out of a false pretense charge; and
- If the accused did not know that the property was stolen, they may not be convicted of theft by possession.
If you have been accused of a theft crime, it is in your best interest to consult with a well-qualified and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you understand your state’s laws regarding theft, as well as determine if any defenses are available to your specific circumstances. Finally, an attorney can represent you in court as needed.