California Penal Code 484 defines theft as the unlawful taking of someone else’s property. It is classified as petty theft when:

  • The item is valued at $950 or less
  • The item was not a firearm or a car
  • The item was not taken directly off of someone else, as in a mugging

The theft is classified as œgrand theft when the item (or items) was valued at more than $950, or when the theft involved something more serious, like the theft of a car or a firearm, or when someone is assaulted or harassed in the process.

Types of Petty Theft

Shoplifting is, by far, the most common form of petty theft. However, California law states there are several different types of theft that can constitute petty theft.


Shoplifting is a form of petty larceny, meaning the item is physically carried off from its rightful home.

According to the Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions, to be found guilty of petty larceny, all the following criteria must be true:

  • The defendant took possession of property owned by someone else
  • The defendant took the property without the owners consent
  • When the defendant took the property, he or she intended to deprive the owner of it permanently or remove it from the owners possession for so extended a period of time that the owner would be deprived of a major portion of the value or enjoyment of the property
  • The defendant moved the property, even a small distance, and kept it for a period of time, however brief

It is important to note that, in order to be convicted, the prosecutor must prove that you had every intention of removing the property from the premises. Security officers or œloss prevention personnel can sometimes jump to conclusions and assume you are trying to steal something when you had no intention to do so.

Shoplifting, the most common form of petty theft, costs the U.S. more than $13 billion annually. According to the National Retail Security Survey, employee theft and shoplifting accounted for 79 percent of the retail industrys $34.5 billion in shrinkage in 2013.  Approximately 1 in 11 people have shoplifted at some point or another. The average amount shoplifted by a customer is $129, compared to $715 per shoplifting attempt for employees.

However, research has shown that financial considerations are rarely a shoplifters main motivation. A 2008 study from Columbia University found that shoplifting was more common among those with higher education and income.

The National Retail Federation found that the most highly targeted items are:

  • Designer handbags
  • High-end vacuums
  • High-end mixers
  • GPS devices
  • Kids electronics

Approximately 70 percent of stores have visible CCTV systems, and one-third have a plainclothes store detective or ink tags to prevent theft.

However, shoplifting is not the only way to draw petty theft charges. Under California law, the label of œpetty theft still applies when:

  • Someone changes the price tag on an item in the store in order to pay less for it
  • Someone misappropriates money that has been entrusted to them or their organization (i.e. embezzlement)
  • Someone lies to persuade another person to give up his or her property (i.e. theft by fraud or false pretense)

Theft by Trick

Petty theft rules also apply when an individual makes changes or defrauds someone to obtain property unlawfully. For example, theft by trick applies when someone changes the price tag on an item in the store to avoid paying full price.

The following must be true to be convicted of petty theft by trick, according to the Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions:

  • The defendant obtained property that he or she knew was owned by someone else
  • The property owner consented to the defendants possession of the property because the defendant used fraud or deceit
  • When the defendant obtained the property, he or she intended to deprive the owner of it permanently or to remove it from the owners possession for so extended a period of time that the owner would be deprived of a major portion of the value or enjoyment of the property
  • The defendant kept the property for any length of time
  • The owner did not intend to transfer ownership of the property

Theft by Embezzlement

Another type of petty theft is known as embezzlement. For embezzlement to apply, the following must be true:

  • An owner of property entrusted the property to the defendant
  • The property owner did so because he or she trusted the defendant
  • The defendant took or used that money for his or her own benefit
  • When the defendant took or used the property, he or she intended to deprive the owner of it, even for a short amount of time

Petty theft by embezzlement is most commonly found in small businesses, and it usually involves a breach of duty or confidence. For example, if a teller at a bank is falling behind on her bills and decides to pocket a customers deposit for personal use rather than putting it in the rightful account, he or she could face charges of theft by embezzlement.

Defending Against Petty Theft Charges

An experienced criminal defense attorney can get a better understanding of your particular case and develop a strategy that applies to your situation. Contact the Law Office of Peter Blair for a free consultation regarding your legal options.

Some common defenses for petty theft include:

  • Possession of the item
  • Consent from the owner of the item
  • Lack of intent to steal or shoplift
  • False accusation

Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing

Under California law, petty theft is a misdemeanor. Penal Code 490 states that petty theft is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment in county jail for up to six months, or both.

Many first-time offenders qualify for reduction of charges and/or petty theft diversion programs. In addition, first-time offenders with no other theft-related convictions who stole property valued at $50 or less can have charges reduced to an infraction. Infractions are punishable by a maximum fine of $250.

An experienced California criminal defense lawyer will pursue alternative options for a  first-time offender, such as diversion programs, probation, community service, or anti-theft classes.

Certain prior convictions”including petty theft, grand theft, grand theft auto, burglary, robbery, felony receiving stolen property, and carjacking”can lead to increased penalties if found guilty of petty theft. In these cases, the petty theft can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on your criminal history and the circumstances surrounding your case.

Consult an Experienced Petty Theft Defense Lawyer

If you or a loved one is facing charges of petty theft, contact the Law Office of Peter Blair. Our experienced attorneys are here to help you get through this process and get on with your life. No matter your unique situation, the Law Office of Peter Blair will be with you every step of the way and make sure you are treated fairly throughout the legal process.