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Petty Theft and Shoplifting: What is the law and punishment?

California Penal Code 487(a) "petty theft and shoplifting" is a misdemeanor.  Petty theft applies to all theft not addressed in other penal codes.  There is no value requirement for petty theft making it the most common theft charge.  A conviction of petty theft carries significant risk to current and future employment because of the stigma surrounding theft crimes.

What Must Be Proven in a Petty Theft Case?

PC 496(a) requires the following to be proven:

  1. the defendant took by theft money, labor, or real or personal property of another; and
  2. the value of said money, labor, or real or personal property taken $950.00 or less.

 The prosecution has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt that a grand theft has occurred.

What are the penalties for a Petty Theft?

PC 488 has a maximum fine of up to $2,000 and/or up to 6 months in county jail.  

What are the defenses to Petty Theft?

The defendant did not intend to steal

Petty theft requires the defendant to intend to deprive the owner permanently of the property.  It is very easy to mistakenly exit a store with a small item without paying on mistake.  Most large stores have self check out aisles that can lead to an item not being scanned unintentionally.  This may be a defense to a petty theft charge.

The property belonged to the defendant

If the victim claims theft but it can be proven the property belongs to the defendant, a grand theft has not occurred.  The burden is not the prosecution to establish the victim has ownership over the property that was allegedly taken.  This may be difficult to prove if the defendant has witnesses to say the property is the defendants or receipt of purchase can be shown.

The victim consented to the defendant taking the property

If permission was given at any point to take possession of the property, a grand theft has not occurred.  Borrowing property is common.  If the victim allowed a defendant to borrow property but later calls the police a grand theft likely has not occurred even if significant time has elapsed if it can be proven the intent was to return the property.

See also

PC 487(a) Grand Theft 

PC 496 Receiving Stolen Property

PC 666(a) Petty theft with a prior

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