Theft Crimes: Penalties, Sentences and Defenses

Where You Need a Lawyer:

(This may not be the same place you live)

At No Cost! 

 What Is the Legal Definition of Theft?

Simply put, theft is taking someone else’s property to deprive them of that property permanently. It doesn’t include unintentionally depriving someone of property, such as failing to return a loaned lawn mower. To be theft, the thief must have intended to make the property their own.

There are two broad categories of theft:

  • Petty theft is also called misdemeanor theft. This is the theft of low-value items. Most shoplifting is petty theft.
  • Grand theft is the theft of higher-value items and is a felony. States vary as to what dollar value of property qualifies as petty theft and what qualifies as grand theft, but a typical cutoff is $1,000. Almost all car theft is grand theft since the dollar value of the vehicle is bound to be more than $1,000. In some states, car theft is always a felony, no matter what the car is worth.

Theft is also categorized by the method in which the theft is committed. Special types of theft include:

  • Identity theft – using someone’s name, credit card, driver’s license, or credit card without permission.
  • Robbery – this is theft plus violence. In a robbery, the thief attempts to force the victim to turn over the property using physical violence, intimidation, or threats. The use of a weapon to commit this crime is called armed robbery.
  • Fraud – this type of theft occurs when someone deceives or coerces someone to turn over their property to the thief.
  • Embezzlement – occurs when someone trusted with another person’s or entity’s account, or funds takes some or all of the money and uses it for their own purposes rather than on the owner’s behalf.

Finally, states classify theft based on whether any aggravating factors were present. Aggravating factors include any special facts about both the victim and the defendant:

  • Was the person elderly or very young, or disabled?
  • Whether the object was stolen directly from the person or instead was done behind their back. Taking the property directly off the victim causes more fear to the victim
  • Whether the thief has a prior criminal record, particularly for theft
  • The level of threat or violence that was used

How Does the Law Define Property?

Theft is taking someone else’s property and intending to keep it. Property is quite broadly defined. It can include:

  • Immovable items, such as real estate (buildings and land)
  • Movable objects, such as cars, jewelry, and cash
  • Documents such as certificates, bonds, and titles
  • Data, such as trade secrets or someone’s identifying information (e.g., social security number)
  • Failing to pay for personal services, such as the service of food at a restaurant

What are the Penalties for Theft?

The first question is determining the value of the stolen item to analyze potential penalties that may be applied in a theft crime. Penalties will be higher for stealing a car than for shoplifting a pair of jeans.

By definition, the incarceration penalty for a misdemeanor theft cannot be for more than a year, while it can be decades in the conviction of a felony.

As an example, this is how the factors are applied if you committed theft under Michigan law:

  • For the theft of a piece of jewelry worth $150, you would be charged with petty larceny, a misdemeanor offense. The potential penalties would be a small fine and/or jail time of up to 90 days.
  • If the jewelry was valued between $200 – $1,000, you would still be charged with a misdemeanor but would face higher fines (not more than $2,000 or three times the property’s value) and up to a year of imprisonment.
  • If you steal property worth at least $1,000, you have committed a felony, and the minimum prison time is one year.
  • If the value is between $1,000 – $20,000 or the theft of a motor vehicle or trailer (in Michigan, auto theft crimes are always charged as felonies), you have committed a felony and could receive up to five years imprisonment. You can also be fined $10,000, or three times the property’s value.
  • For property valued above $20,000, you face up to ten years in prison. Your fine can be up to $15,000 or three times the property’s value. That could be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Restitution may also be ordered for all levels of theft and any other punishments. These payments are in addition to fines, which are paid to the government. Instead, restitution is paid to the victim to compensate them for the theft. The amount of the payment is typically the value of whatever was taken.

Finally, convicted thieves face additional penalties that are imposed outside of the courtroom. For example, a defendant could lose custody of a child or be deported. They will have a permanent record as felons and will not be allowed to vote or serve on a jury.

How Are Sentences for Theft Crimes Increased?

The sentence for theft will always be increased if any of these aggravating factors are involved:

  • The use of a weapon (this makes it an aggravated theft)
  • The use of threats or intimidation
  • Theft related to gang activity
  • Theft related to organized crime
  • Theft of police or government property
  • Theft of property that you were trusted to take care of

Are There Any Defenses for Theft?

If you are charged with theft, there may be some available defenses you can use in court. Which defenses are available will depend on the circumstances of your case. Possibilities include:

  • Mistake – you honestly thought the property was yours
  • True ownership – you actually own the property
  • Authorization – you had permission to take the property
  • Having a mental defect that means that you could not have formed the intent to commit the crime
  • Duress – essentially being forced to commit a crime because someone was threatening you with serious bodily harm
  • “Specific Intent” defense – in a theft case, the prosecution must prove that the thief specifically intended to deprive someone of their property permanently. They must have knowingly or intentionally committed the crime and had the subjective desire or knowledge that their actions would bring about illegal conduct. As such, the lack of specific intent could be used as a defense.

Mitigating factors are also important. Mitigating factors are not defenses, but if they are present, they can sometimes lessen the severity of your punishment for the crime. Some examples of mitigating factors are:

  • Admitting the truth of the facts of the crime
  • Showing remorse and guilt
  • Age (juveniles are punished more lightly than older thieves)
  • Lack of any significant criminal history
  • Cooperation with the police

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have Been Charged with Theft?

Whether you were charged with petty theft or grand theft, a criminal lawyer near you can greatly help with your case. An experienced criminal lawyer can review your charges and answer any questions you may have.

A lawyer can also advise you on your state’s specific theft laws, penalties, and any available defenses. Finally, a lawyer can negotiate with the prosecutor for the best deal for you and can represent you in court during hearings and at trial, if it comes to that.

Law Library Disclaimer


16 people have successfully posted their cases

Find a Lawyer