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What Is Theft?

Theft can be defined as the wrongful assumption of the property of another, often through the taking and carrying away of that property, with the intent to deprive the person of the property permanently. This definition is full of elements, each of which must be present for theft to occur. Theft is a broad category that encompasses several specific crimes:

  • Larceny: The taking and carrying away of someone else’s property with the intent to permanently deprive the true owner of that property.
  • Burglary: Breaking and entering into another person’s home with the intent to commit a felony once inside.
  • Embezzlement: Fraudulent conversion of funds from the rightful owner’s name to another person by someone who had a right to possess the funds, such as a trustee or a bank.
  • False Pretenses: Acquiring legitimate title to property through false representations with the intent to defraud.
  • Theft of Lost or Mislaid Property: The wrongful retention of mislaid or lost property.

What Kinds of "Property" Count?

For there to be a theft, some property must be taken and carried away. Property used to only include moveable property, but modern statutes have made it such that most everything can be considered property. A list of the main types of property includes: 

  • Real property: plants, houses, and other items affixed to the ground, as well as real estate
  • Tangible property: moveable property, such as cars, jewelry, and computers
  • Documents: stock certificates, money, and any other documents of value
  • Information: records, files, data, and the information or knowledge contained in them such as   people's identities
  • Personal services: utilities, labor, and transportation
  • Intellectual property: abilities, skills, talents, or the results of any of these

What are Some Common Examples of Theft Crimes?

Theft can be categorized as a felony or misdemeanor depending on the nature and severity of the theft – i.e. what was stolen and how much it were worth. Common theft crimes include:

  • Automobile Theft: Crimes involving the unlawful taking of another person’s vehicle. The two most common types of automobile theft are grand theft auto and carjacking.
  • Petty Theft: Theft of a small quantity of cash or low-value goods or services. Petty theft is usually a misdemeanor. The most common type of petty theft is shoplifting.
  • Cyber Theft: Using a computer to access and steal financial records and other personal and confidential information. This information is often used for identity theft.
  • Identity Theft: Using someone’s name, address, Social Security number, credit card, or other identifying information without their knowledge to commit other crimes.
  • Extortion: Obtaining money or property through oral or written threats of physical harm or to ruin the victim’s reputation. Extortion is a felony in all states.
  • Theft of Services: Obtaining services by threat, deception, tampering, or some other unlawful means. Stealing Wi-Fi and stealing cable are the two most common forms.

Is Theft a Felony or Misdemeanor?

The answer to this question usually depends on the value of the property that is taken. In most states, if the value is over $400, it is considered grand theft, which is typically classified as a felony. Theft of property valued at $400 or less is usually petty theft and a misdemeanor.

What are the Penalties For Theft?

Penalties for theft crimes will vary depending on the type of crime involved. Penalties and sentencing for theft will depend on the type of theft crime involved. Less serious theft crimes, such as shoplifting or gas siphoning, often result in a citation or a misdemeanor charge. These may result in small criminal fines and some short jail time. Penalties and sentencing for theft may include:

  • Maximum potential sentence for a misdemeanor theft charge is (1) year in county jail
  • Maximum potential sentence for a felony ranges from 16 months to 3 years
  • Probation
  • Fines (value depends on value of property taken)

What are Grand Theft Charges?

Grand theft occurs when the property stolen is above a certain amount, usually in the thousands of dollars. Grand theft is usually a felony charge, which will result in the types of penalties mentioned above. Even if it is accomplished without the use of a weapon, grand theft results in serious consequences. Also, the defendant may be required to pay criminal restitution to reimburse the victim for the amounts that they stole.

What are the Defenses to a Theft Charge?

One of the most common theft defenses is that you lacked the specific intent required to commit the crime. Theft is a specific intent crime, which means that there is some requisite purpose or intent you must have when you commit the act that constitutes the crime.  This intent is usually the intent to deprive the owner of his/her property permanently. If you don't intend to deprive permanently, but are just borrowing for example, you cannot be convicted of theft.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have Been Accused of Theft?

If you are accused of theft, you should speak to a criminal defense attorney to learn more about your rights, defenses, and the legal ramifications. Your criminal defense attorney can provide you with representation during court to ensure that your rights as a criminal defendant are being upheld.

Photo of page author Ki Akhbari

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 09-29-2017 01:45 PM PDT

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