Petty Theft: Understanding This Type of Crime

Theft – it’s been around as long as humans have walked the planet. It also comes in many different forms. There is grand theft, grand theft auto, merchandise theft, lost property theft, and more. One of the more common types is petty theft, and it is important to understand what this crime involves and the potential repercussions for those accused of committing it.

What Is Petty Theft?

Petty theft is a specific type of crime. Usually, it’s based on a monetary scale. That is, in order to be charged with petty theft, the value of the property stolen cannot exceed a certain amount. The actual amount is set by the state in question, or sometimes by the county or municipality. In most cases, there are two broad types of theft – grand theft is reserved for high-value property and petty theft is reserved for low-value property. Often, the demarcation line is $400 to $500, but that is not always the case. For instance, in California, the value of the property taken can be as high as $950 and still qualify as petty theft.

What Criminal Activities Usually Involve Petty Theft?

Someone may be charged with petty theft in conjunction with a wide range of criminal activities. Some of these include:

  • Shoplifting
  • Theft from a retail store

What Does Petty Theft Look Like in Reality?

In many instances, we have a stylized idea of what petty theft looks like thanks to our exposure to TV shows and movies. Someone walks into a retail store, grabs multiple shirts and pants, steps to the dressing room, removes all the tags and puts on the clothing. They’re then able to walk out the door scot-free. However, that’s not usually the way this type of crime is committed. Here are some real-world examples of how petty theft might be committed:

  • Failing to scan all items in a shopping cart at the self-checkout register.
  • Switching price tags on items while in the store in order to pay less at the checkout.
  • Eat and run scams where the diners leave before paying for their food.
  • Repackaging a valuable item into the box/package for a less valuable item.
  • Sneaking into a theater without paying or going into another viewing when the movie you’ve paid to see is over.
  • Eating food or drinking beverages inside a store while shopping and then throwing away the packaging before going through the check-out.

There are other examples of petty theft, too. For instance, in California, theft by false pretense can be considered petty theft, as can theft by larceny and theft by trick. Theft by embezzlement, so long as the amount embezzled is under $950, is still petty theft, as well.

What Is Needed to Convict Someone on Charges of Petty Theft?

While anyone can be charged with petty theft, a successful verdict will require several things. First, the authorities must be able to prove that the person took merchandise or other property. They must also prove that this was done without the owner’s consent or knowledge. The prosecutor must also be able to prove that when the property was taken, the intent was to deprive the owner of it permanently or deprive the owner of its use. That is, you cannot have accidently walked off with something and be charged with petty theft. Finally, they need to prove that you took the property and moved it to another location and then kept it for at least a brief period of time.

How Does Petty Theft Differ from Grand Theft?

Petty theft and grand theft can have many similarities. However, there are some stark differences that you should understand. In most cases, petty theft cannot involve any of the following:

  • An automobile
  • A firearm
  • A horse

In addition, it cannot have been taken directly from a person, as through mugging, robbery, or picking someone’s pocket. Finally, the property stolen needs to match the stated value for grand theft in that state/municipality. However, if the item stolen is a car, firearm, or horse, the value is inconsequential, and the crime will be prosecuted as grand theft. Note that this also applies to certain types of foodstuffs in some areas, such as fruit and nuts, or fish/shellfish.

How Is Petty Theft Charged?

Petty theft is usually a misdemeanor. It is only a felony in very rare circumstances. Conviction can include up to six months in county jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Note that these vary from state to state, though. Additionally, those convicted will usually be required to complete probation even if they do not serve time in jail. In comparison, grand theft usually carries a minimum of 1 year in jail or 16 months in prison if it is charged as a felony.

Potential Defenses against Petty Theft Charges

Working with an experienced criminal defense attorney is vital. A skilled attorney can help you determine the right defense for your situation. However, there are several potential options. One of those is trying to prove that you did not intend to actually steel the property – without intent, there is no crime. Another potential defense is that you had permission from the owner to take the property, either direct or implied. You may also be falsely accused of the crime, or you may have believed that the property belonged to you in the first place.

Moving Forward

If you are facing charges of petty theft, it’s important to contact a criminal defense attorney to begin building your strategy today.

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