Petty theft is the deliberate act of taking another individual's property with the intent to deprive them of its rightful use and enjoyment. The act encompasses a spectrum of actions ranging from larceny and deceit to trickery and embezzlement. The prosecution of petty theft finds its basis in California Penal Code 488, and a conviction comes with substantial consequences, including incarceration, fines, and the imposition of misdemeanor probation.
If you face an arrest and are charged with petty theft in Santa Ana, the importance of enlisting the services of a proficient defense attorney cannot be overstated. At Darwish Law, we guide you through the case, construct a robust defense strategy, and diligently pursue the most favorable resolution.
The Definition of Petty Theft Per California Law
You are guilty of theft under California PC 484(a) if you take another person’s property without their consent and keep it as your own. California Penal Code 488 punishes petty theft.
It states that if you steal any property or any article of personal property not affixed to real property, the value of which does not exceed nine hundred fifty dollars ($950), you are guilty of a PC 484(a) violation. However, if the property is valued at over $950, you face charges under California Penal Code 487 for grand theft.
For the judge to convict you of a PC 484 violation, the prosecutor must prove certain elements beyond a reasonable doubt. They must show that:
- You took possession of property someone else owns without their consent.
- The property value did not exceed $950.
- You intended to deprive the property owner of it permanently or for some time. This could deprive the owner of a major portion of its value or enjoyment.
- You moved someone else’s property, even a short distance away, and briefly deprived the owner of it.
Ownership vs. Possession Of Property
Under the law, theft victims do not have to be property owners for the offense to happen. The crucial factor is possession. If someone possesses property, they have a legal interest that can be violated through theft. This ensures that theft charges are comprehensive, protecting anyone with a lawful right to the property, whether they own it or not.
The terms "ownership" and "possession" can often be regarded as equivalent, especially concerning Petty Theft. This alignment is intentional and serves to simplify legal matters. It prevents potential loopholes where you could claim that, although you did not own the property, you possessed it and, therefore, should be exempt from theft charges.
This legal perspective has practical implications. It means that individuals, businesses, or even institutions that possess property are afforded legal protection against theft. So, if the plaintiff is in possession of something valuable and you unlawfully take it from them, the law is on their side, regardless of whether you own it outright.
The legal recognition of possession as equal to ownership expands the scope of individuals and entities protected against theft. This includes renters, businesses leasing equipment, or anyone temporarily possessing valuable items. By taking this approach, the law ensures that property interests are safeguarded.
Moving the Property
For a theft crime to be considered complete under California law, you must have moved the property in question. Moving the property, even a small distance, is legally called "asportation." It signifies that the property has been taken from its original location and is now under the defendant's control.
The movement of property involves the following elements:
- The property must be separated from the possession of the plaintiff. This means that it is physically removed from where it was initially located, establishing that it's no longer under the control of the lawful owner.
- Once the property is moved, it should be in your complete possession. This means that you now exercise control and authority over the property.
- The legal requirement for movement does not necessitate that the property has traveled a significant distance. A slight movement satisfies this condition if it intentionally changes the property's location.
Moving property is crucial for the prosecution's case in a Petty Theft trial. It provides tangible evidence that the defendant did not just intend to take the property but also took physical action to control and possess it.
The inclusion of this requirement helps prevent ambiguity in theft cases. It ensures that individuals aren't accused of theft solely based on their intentions or proximity to the property. Instead, the law demands tangible evidence of movement, making it more challenging for wrongful accusations to occur.
Intent to Deprive
The concept of "intent to deprive" is pivotal in California's definition of Petty Theft. For a PC 488 violation charge to hold, you must harbor the intent to deprive the owner or possessor of the property permanently.
It is not just taking possession of someone else's property that constitutes a crime; it is the specific intention to keep it and deny the rightful owner any future use or benefit. This intent is the key differentiator between an innocent act and a criminal offense.
Intent to deprive is a critical safeguard that ensures that individuals are not wrongly accused of theft in cases where their actions may have been misunderstood or misinterpreted. Mere possession of another's property is not enough to incur criminal liability; malicious intent transforms it into a crime.
Theft of Multiple Items
If you steal multiple items at once, a critical question could emerge. Do these thefts count as separate offenses, or can they be considered one crime? Whether these thefts are counted as one theft charge or multiple charges depends on two key factors:
- Single Victim - Stealing multiple items from a single victim is more likely to be considered one plan, intent, or impulse. This means that all the thefts may be grouped into one charge.
- Intent, Plan, or Impulse - The crucial factor is whether the thefts were part of one overarching intent, plan, or impulse. They are more likely to be treated as one charge if they were.
In cases where multiple items are stolen and counted as one theft charge, the property value is the total value of the property stolen in every theft. This means that the total worth of the stolen items is considered in determining the severity of the offense.
This approach ensures that the law is applied fairly and doesn't overly penalize individuals for a series of thefts that were part of a single criminal act. It takes into account the overall intent and circumstances of the thefts.
Benefit or Use Of Property Stolen
One of the key elements that must be proven in a Petty Theft case is that the defendant intended to permanently deprive the owner of the property. In other words, they intended to keep the property and not return it to its rightful owner. It does not matter whether you want to use the property or benefit from it in any way.
The major focus is on your intention to take the property away from its owner without any intent to give it back. This means that even if you had plans to use the stolen property temporarily or for your own benefit, it doesn't absolve them of the theft charge if their ultimate intent was permanent deprivation.
Value Of Property
In California, theft is categorized into two main offenses - Petty Theft and Grand Theft. The primary distinction between the two lies in the value of the stolen property. Petty Theft, per California Penal Code 484(a) PC, involves the unlawful taking of property worth $950 or less. This offense is considered a misdemeanor.
On the other hand, Grand Theft, per California Penal Code 487 PC, pertains to the unlawful taking of property worth more than $950. Grand Theft is a more serious offense and is typically charged as a felony.
To determine the correct value of the property in question, California courts use a concept called "fair market value." This term is defined as the highest price the property would reasonably have sold for on the open market at the time and in the place where it was stolen. When assessing the fair market value of stolen property, several key considerations come into play:
- The value is determined based on prevailing market conditions at the time and place of the theft.
- It considers the highest price the property could reasonably have sold for.
- The assessment assumes that the property is sold in an open market, which means it's available to a broad range of potential buyers.
Fair market value is crucial in preventing the misclassification of theft offenses. It ensures that theft cases are categorized accurately based on the actual value of the stolen property.
Are There Different Forms Of Petty Theft?
Petty Theft in California encompasses various forms, each with its own set of nuances and legal definitions. The following are some of the forms:
Theft By Trick
"Theft by Trick" is another form of Petty Theft. To convict you, the prosecution must establish the following elements:
- You obtained property that you knew another person owned it.
- The owner allowed you to take possession of their property since you used some form of deceit or fraud.
- When you obtained the property, you intended to permanently deprive the owner of it or for a particular period.
- You retained possession of the property for any period.
- The property owner never intended to transfer property ownership to you.
In this context, "fraud" is intentionally using deceit or tricks to deprive someone else of their property.
Theft By Larceny
Theft by larceny happens when you take another person's property and move it without their consent. The property involved in larceny cases is often personal and can include items like jewelry, clothing, or furniture.
The elements of theft by larceny are similar to those outlined for theft in general. Additionally, for the offense to be charged as petty larceny, the value of the property stolen must be $950 or less.
Theft by embezzlement
The prosecution may charge you with petty theft if you are charged with theft by embezzlement. Per PC 503, the prosecution can only secure a conviction if they establish particular elements, including:
- The property owner entrusted their property to you.
- The owner of the property did so since they trusted you.
- You fraudulently took or used that property for your benefit.
- When you took someone else’s property, you intended to deprive them of its use, even if only temporarily.
Theft By False Pretenses or Fraud
Theft by Fraud or False Pretenses, as defined in P 532, occurs when you knowingly and deliberately deceive a property owner by making a false pretense or telling them something untrue. The property owner lets the accused take possession of the property because they relied on this false pretense.
A "false pretense" can take several forms, including:
- Giving false information.
- Recklessly stating something as true without a basis for belief.
- Failing to provide information when obligated to do so.
- Making a promise without the intent to fulfill it.
Legal Defenses To Petty Theft Charges
When facing charges for petty theft, you want to understand the best defenses available to protect your rights and possibly have the charges dropped.
You Had the Property Owner’s Consent
One of the strongest defenses against petty theft charges is demonstrating that you acted with the owner's consent. In such cases, you can prove that the property owner willingly allowed you to take possession of their property.
To establish this defense, gather all relevant evidence indicating that the property owner allowed you to take the property. This may include text messages, emails, voicemails, or eyewitness accounts supporting your claim. If available, video footage showing the property owner granting consent can be highly persuasive.
Claiming that you borrowed the property is another effective defense strategy. It hinges on the idea that you had no intent to permanently deprive the owner of their property. Gather evidence that supports your claim of borrowing.
This may include emails, text messages, or documented communications where you expressed your intention to return the property after use. Additionally, any actions you took to return the property, such as setting a specific date for its return, can be valuable evidence.
If applicable, GPS records can be a useful piece of evidence. They can show your effort to return the property within a reasonable time frame after borrowing it. If there were witnesses who could confirm that you borrowed the property to return it, their testimonies could strengthen your defense.
Claim of Right
This defense argues that you genuinely believed you had a right to take the property, even though the belief was unreasonable or mistaken.
To use this defense successfully, you must demonstrate that you genuinely believed you had a legal right to the property you are accused of stealing. This belief should be sincere, even if it proves incorrect or unreasonable later.
Gather any supporting documentation that could substantiate your claim. This might include bills of sale, receipts, invoices, or any written communication indicating property ownership transfer. If there are witnesses who can confirm your belief in having a legitimate claim to the property, their testimonies can be crucial in bolstering your defense.
Penalties, Sentencing, and Punishment For Petty Theft in California
Petty theft is a misdemeanor and could attract the following penalties:
- Serving time in jail for no more than six months.
- A fine not exceeding $1,000.
- Misdemeanor probation.
Immigration laws in the United States are complex and can have severe repercussions for non-citizens convicted of certain crimes, including theft offenses. Petty theft can be considered a "crime of moral turpitude" under U.S. immigration law.
Crimes of moral turpitude include offenses that are considered morally reprehensible. Convictions for these offenses can lead to serious immigration consequences, including deportation.
In addition to deportation, a conviction could render you "inadmissible." Inadmissibility means you may be barred from re-entering the United States or obtaining lawful immigration status.
In some cases, a petty theft conviction can be classified as an aggravated felony under immigration law. Aggravated felonies carry some of the harshest immigration consequences, including mandatory deportation.
If you are a non-citizen and convicted of petty theft, you may face deportation or removal proceedings. This can result in forced removal from the United States, separating you from your family and community.
Expunging Your Petty Theft Conviction
If you have been convicted of petty theft in California, you may wonder whether getting an expungement to clear your criminal record is possible. Expungement is a legal process that can offer a fresh start for individuals with certain convictions.
In California, those convicted of petty theft are generally eligible for expungement under specific conditions. To be eligible, you must have completed your probation period, paid all fines and restitution, and not currently face any new criminal charges.
Expunging a petty theft conviction involves filing a petition with the court that handled your case. This petition requests that the court dismiss the conviction and set aside the guilty plea or verdict. It's important to note that an expungement does not erase the conviction entirely but instead changes it to a dismissal.
Expungement offers several benefits, including legally stating that you have not been convicted of the offense when asked by potential employers or landlords. It can also improve your chances of obtaining employment, housing, and professional licenses.
How a Petty Theft Conviction Affects Your Gun Rights
If you've been convicted of petty theft in California, you might be concerned about the potential impact on your Second Amendment rights, specifically your right to possess firearms. If you were convicted of petty theft as a misdemeanor, the impact on your gun rights may be limited. Under California law, a misdemeanor conviction alone does not trigger an automatic firearms prohibition.
If your petty theft conviction was charged as a felony, the consequences are more severe. A felony conviction, regardless of the underlying offense, can result in a lifetime ban on firearms possession under federal law.
Find a Criminal Lawyer Near Me
Petty theft attracts significant penalties under California law. When confronted with charges of petty theft in Santa Ana, it is imperative that you promptly secure the services of a dedicated criminal defense attorney. Your very livelihood, fundamental rights, and cherished freedom are at stake.
At Darwish Law, we stand ready with seasoned criminal lawyers who possess the expertise necessary to examine the specifics of your case. We are adept at building legal defenses designed to yield the most favorable outcome possible in your case. Contact our office at your earliest convenience at 714-887-4810.