Simply put, theft refers to taking someone else’s property with the intent to permanently deprive them of that property. However, under the law there are many different levels of theft and distinct crimes that carry a range of penalties. Theft can also be classified as either a felony or misdemeanor depending on the situation.
The level of punishment will depend on the severity of the specific theft charges. For example, stealing a low value item from a retail store will result in lesser charges and penalties than stealing someone’s vehicle. When someone uses weapons or force while perpetrating theft, this will also be classified as a more serious crime.
If you are facing theft charges, then it is important to know the potential penalties and any defenses you may have. This will depend on your state’s laws and the specific theft crime that you were charged with. Also be aware that many states use the term “larceny” instead of theft.
What Are Some Examples of Theft Crimes?
As noted, there are many different types of theft charges ranging from minor to serious offenses. Some examples of minor theft include stealing items like lower value jewelry or clothes. This is often classified as petty theft or misdemeanor theft. States are all over the board for what the threshold for this is, however, you will usually not see the value being higher than $1,000.
On the other hand, some examples of more serious theft include stealing items like a car, high value jewelry, or a large sum of cash. State law will classify each offense based on the type of theft involved, value of property stolen, and whether any aggravating factors were present. Stealing more valuable property like this is often referred to as grand theft or grand larceny.
How Does the Law Define Property?
Under criminal laws, property can be broadly defined. This is because property may include moveable items, as well as immovable. Some examples of property which may be unlawfully taken away include, but may not be limited to:
- Real property, or immovable items, such as land and things attached to that land;
- Tangible or moveable property, such as cars, computers, jewelry, cash, etc.;
- Documents, such as certificates, bonds, tiles, etc.;
- Information that could include a person’s identifying data, a company’s trade secrets, etc; and
- Personal services, such service of food at a restaurant, also commonly known as dine and dash.
As previously mentioned, theft is defined as the taking of another person’s property, without their consent and with the intent to deprive that person of their rightful property. Under this definition of theft, property can be considered anything a person owns.
What Are the Penalties for Theft?
The penalties for theft will depend on several factors like how severe the crime is, your criminal history, whether a weapon was involved, and property value. Penalties will be higher for felonies and than for misdemeanors.
Additionally, repeat offenders will often receive harsher penalties and less sentencing leniency than if it were your first offense. However, keep in mind that you can have a first offense felony theft charge if the property value is high enough or the type of property involved falls under felony classification in your state.
For example, say you stole a piece of jewelry valued at $150. Under Michigan law you would be charged with petty larceny, which is a misdemeanor offense. The potential penalties would be a small fine and/or imprisonment up to 93 days.
If the jewelry was valued between $200 – $1,000, then you would still be charged with a misdemeanor but could face higher fines (not more than $2,000 or three times the property value) and up to a year of imprisonment.
In Michigan, you will be charged with felony theft if you steal property over $1,000. If the value is between $1,000 – $20,000 or the crime is for theft of a motor vehicle or trailer, then you will receive a felony charge holding penalties of up to five years imprisonment.
You can also receive a fine up to $10,000 or three times the property value. For property valued above $20,000, you will be charged with a felony and face up to ten years in prison. Your fine can be up to $15,000 or three times the property value.
This illustration of Michigan law shows how penalties are tiered for theft crimes. While this is generally based on property value, as you can see some states will deem certain theft to always be a felony regardless of amount. Michigan does this with auto theft crimes, which will always be a felony even if the car is valued under $1,000.
Can Sentences for Theft Crimes Be Increased or Decreased?
Sentences for theft crime may be increased or decreased, based on a variety of factors; namely, whether the crime could be considered aggravated theft. Aggravated theft refers to the theft of property but with any of the following aggravating factors:
- The use of weapon, specifically a deadly weapon;
- The use of threats or intimidation in relation to the crime;
- Theft related to gang activity or organized crime;
- Theft of high-value property; and/or
- Theft of police or government property.
If a theft crime is considered to be aggravated theft, the sentence may result in increased fines and prison time. Additionally, those found guilty of aggravated theft will generally have a permanent felony record of the crime. Such a conviction may also affect a person’s individual legal rights, either temporarily or permanently. Some examples include the loss of the right to vote, and the loss of the right to serve on a jury.
Are There Any Defenses for Theft?
If you are charged with theft, there may be some available defenses you can use in court. What defenses are available will depend on the circumstances of your case. This generally includes:
- True ownership of the property by the defendant; and
- Authorization to use the property.
These will not always be available and will depend on the facts of your case. Other defenses may be possible as well.
If mitigating factors are present, while not defenses these can sometimes lessen the severity of your punishment for the crime. Some examples of mitigating factors are lack of criminal history, remorse, age, and cooperation.
What Is the “Specific Intent” Defense?
Criminal intent refers to a person’s state of mind and their motivations that could be connected to physical acts. There are different types of criminal intent, depending largely on the type of crime committed.
In terms of theft, the prosecution must prove that the thief intended to permanently deprive someone else of their property, and had not accidentally obtained the property. Criminal intent may be classified into two categories, general intent and specific intent. Generally, it is more difficult to prove specific intent crimes compared to general intent crimes.
Specific intent generally refers to a person knowingly or intentionally committing a crime, and requires that the person had a 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 in the context of a theft charge.
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. Lastly, a lawyer can represent you in court and try to negotiate the best deal on your behalf.