In Los Angeles, petty theft is a catch-all term for the theft of relatively low-value property. Even though the crime is relatively minor, it is still a misdemeanor criminal offense, which carries the potential jail time of up to six months. If you or a loved one have been arrested for petty theft, you should talk to a Los Angeles petty theft lawyer.
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What Is Petty Theft Under California Law?
Petty theft is defined by two sections of state law, California Penal Code §§484 and 488. In general, it means stealing anything worth $950 or less. While there is no such thing as a “good” crime to be charged with, petty theft is preferable to other, more serious theft crimes because the penalties are not as severe.
However, there are a variety of restrictions and exceptions on what counts as petty theft. Specifically, the crime must meet three standards:
- The stolen item must be within the $950 limit.
- The item must not have been taken directly from the owner—in other words, not obtained through a mugging or robbery.
- The stolen property was not a motor vehicle, firearm, horse, or agricultural product (valued over $250).
If the stolen goods fit one of the categories in the third standard, then the $950 limit doesn’t apply, and you can be charged with something more serious than petty theft.
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What Are the Differences Between Petty Theft and More Serious Theft?
Here are some simple examples that show the difference between petty theft and a more serious form of theft:
Example A: A woman is working in a coffee shop when she gets up to use the bathroom, leaving her laptop on the table. While she’s away, someone grabs the device and leaves with it. The laptop is a couple of years old and only valued at $500, and the woman was not mugged, so it’s petty theft.
Example B: A woman is standing in line at the coffee shop. Her backpack is open, and her laptop is visible inside of it. Someone comes up to her, grabs the laptop out of the bag, and runs. The computer was taken directly off of her person, so the crime cannot be charged as petty theft and will be charged as a more serious offense instead.
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Which Crimes Fall Under the Category of Petty Theft?
There are several different offenses that all count as petty theft, meaning that the basic penalties are the same for all of them. For example, any of these count as petty theft:
- Theft by trick
- Theft by fraud
Theft by Trick
Theft by trick is the act of deceiving another person into giving you property or money.
Theft by Fraud
Theft by fraud is another form of deception, although this goes a step further. Theft by fraud involves getting the victim to give you the title of ownership for the stolen property.
Larceny is the simple act of picking up property that doesn’t belong to you and walking away with it with the intention of keeping it long-term.
Shoplifting is a form of larceny. However, with shoplifting, the stolen item is merchandise from a store.
Embezzlement occurs when the owner of the money or property entrusted it to another individual who proceeded to steal a portion of what they received. Embezzlement most often occurs when an employee steals from their employer. However, it can technically transpire whenever any party entrusts another with an item of value.
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Is Petty Theft Ever a Felony in Los Angeles?
No, petty theft is always charged as a misdemeanor. However, if the value of the property is greater than $950, the item was taken off the victim directly, or if the item meets any of the other exceptions above, the defendant will be charged with a different crime, usually grand theft. Grand theft is much more serious and can be a felony in many cases.
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Does Petty Theft Count as a “Strike”?
A petty theft conviction in California will not count as a strike under California’s Three Strikes Law. To receive a strike, you must be found guilty of a serious or violent felony. Since petty theft is never charged as a felony and is not considered serious or violent, a conviction will not result in a strike on your record.
What Are the Penalties for Petty Theft in Los Angeles?
Petty theft is charged as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. As such, the punishments for this crime are not nearly as severe as those faced by people convicted of more serious forms of theft.
The potential penalties for petty theft include:
- Up to six months in jail
- A fine of up to $1,000
- Summary probation
What Are the Best Defenses for a Petty Theft Charge?
There are many potential defenses that a Los Angeles petty theft lawyer may use when fighting a petty theft charge. Some of the most common defenses are:
- Mistaken ownership
- No intent to steal
- Owner’s permission
- Wrongfully accused
- Illegal search and seizure
If you accidentally take an item that you believe to be yours, you have committed an honest mistake, not a crime. For example, you are not guilty of petty theft if you accidentally grabbed the wrong briefcase.
No Intent to Steal
If you picked an item up to use it or look at it and forgot you had it in your possession, you are not guilty of petty theft. An example would be trying on sunglasses in a store and forgetting about them when you leave. Unfortunately, proving that this was an error can sometimes prove difficult.
If the owner gave you permission to borrow or keep an item, you have not committed a crime by taking it. However, if the owner claims permission was not given, and there were no witnesses, proof of consent can be difficult. Fortunately, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution.
A person can be wrongfully accused of petty theft for a variety of reasons. A witness may have confused you with the actual thief. It could be that you only had stolen property on you because you bought it from someone, not knowing it was illegally obtained.
It is also possible that someone planted the stolen item on you. This tactic is often used by real thieves, to throw suspicion off themselves.
Illegal Search and Seizure
If the police searched you or your property without a search warrant, probable cause, or your consent, any evidence of a crime they discover is inadmissible. An experienced lawyer will likely be able to get all evidence obtained in this manner thrown out and may even be able to get the case against you dismissed.
Even if you are guilty of a crime, an illegal search and seizure violates your fourth amendment rights and can result in the dismissal of all charges.
It is also possible for a skilled petty theft lawyer in Los Angeles to challenge the evidence against you, whether that includes statements you made to police or physical evidence. If the evidence is suppressed it could mean having the charges dropped. Unfortunately, none of these defenses work unless you know how to build a solid case.
It may be possible to avoid the traditional prosecution route when facing a petty theft charge. Not everyone qualifies for pretrial diversion, it is typically reserved for more mild offenses. The goal of pretrial diversion is to reduce the rate of recidivism by putting offenders on a path that avoids the prison system and instead focuses on community supervision and services.
Those who are granted pretrial diversion will likely be ordered to fulfill an array of requirements including:
- Paying restitution to victims
- Community service
- Attending a class focused on the offense for which they have been accused
If the defendant successfully completes all requirements, the criminal charges are dismissed. However, if they fail to complete these tasks they will return to a traditional courtroom processing.
Talk to a Los Angeles Petty Theft Lawyer for Free
It’s vital that you have someone by your side who understands the legal system and how to win cases. At the Simmrin Law Group, we will give you a free, no-obligation consultation and help you start building your defense. Fill out our online contact form or give us a call and get your free consultation today.
An experienced theft crimes lawyer in Los Angeles, CA, will review your case and advise you of all your legal options.
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