Though the definition of theft may vary depending on your state, intentionally removing or otherwise taking possession or control of someone else’s property without consideration or consent is generally considered theft.

There are different types of theft with which you may be charged depending on the type of property or the value of the property.

What are Some Examples of Theft Crimes?

The unlawful taking of property is the essential element of any crime of theft, though there are different types of theft recognized under the law. These include:

  • Burglary & Robbery: Burglary typically requires the unlawful breaking and entering into another person’s home or building for the purpose of committing a criminal offense. If you commit theft with a weapon or with force, the crime becomes robbery (although robbery does not require unlawful breaking or entering).
    • Extortion is similar to the crime of robbery in that extortion also involves acquiring money, services or property through force, usually by means of threats or intimidation. However, unlike robbery where the threat is immediate, extortion can involve a threat to commit some future harm.
  • Larceny: You may be guilty of larceny if you take property and carry it away in order to permanently deprive the legal owner of that property.
  • Embezzlement: Embezzlement occurs when someone who has permission to handle your property converts it for their own personal purpose. The crime typically occurs when the rightful owner entrusts the property to someone having a duty to preserve and protect the property for the benefit of the owner.
    • For example, if the manager of your retirement funds utilizes the funds to complete maintenance on their home, they may be guilty of embezzlement. Also, overcharging customers and pocketing the difference can also be considered an example of embezzlement.
  • False Pretenses: You may be guilty of theft through false pretenses if you acquire goods or services through false representations with the intent to defraud. Dining and dashing (i.e. theft of services) and identity theft are examples of this type of crime.
  • Theft of Lost or Mislaid Property: It is a crime to keep property you have acquired that you know has been lost or mislaid. The law typically requires that the finder take reasonable measures to return the property unless the property was permanently abandoned by the owner.

How Does the Law Define Property?

Property is treated quite broadly under criminal laws. It can include moveable as well as immovable things. Here are some examples of property which can be taken unlawfully:

  • Real property includes things that cannot be moved, primarily land and things attached to it, such as buildings.
  • Tangible property is defined as moveable property, such as cars, computers and books and personal items like jewelry.
  • Documents include stock certificates, bonds, money, and any other documents representing something of monetary value.
  • Information that may include a person’s identifying data, a company’s proprietary secrets or intellectual property or other types of data that may be contained on a computer, disk, or similar storage devices.
  • Personal services such as repairs to your car, service of food at a restaurant (i.e. dine and dash), and hotel accommodation.

What are the Penalties for Theft?

The penalty for theft will depend on the circumstances surrounding the theft, such as the type of property taken, the value of the property, whether a weapon or force was used, and whether the victim was injured.

For example, shoplifting from a department store is very different from an armed robbery of the same store. One may be considered a misdemeanor while the other will be considered a felony. Misdemeanors may result in a citation, fines or minimal jail time; in comparison, felonies can warrant sentences of many years.

What are the Defenses to a Theft Charge?

Each type of theft has different elements that must be proven in order for the accused to be found guilty. For most crimes, the prosecution must show that the accused intended to commit the crime or intended for the victim to be injured.

Therefore, if the prosecution cannot prove intent, you may be able to argue successfully that the prosecution has failed to satisfy its burden and you are therefore not guilty of having committed the crime for which you have been charged.

For example, if you have been charged with the theft of a cell phone, perhaps you can argue lack of intent since you only borrowed the phone to make a single phone call because you misplaced your own phone.

Other conventional defenses to crimes can also be applied to theft charges, depending on the circumstances. These can include the crimes of coercion, intoxication, and other defenses.

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

Regardless in which state you are charged with the crime of theft, you can be certain that the penalty you will receive if convicted of the crime can have serious reputational, financial and legal consequences.

As such, if you have been charged with a crime, you can benefit from speaking to a criminal defense attorney to learn how you can fight the charges and protect your rights to the fullest extent.