Theft Crimes

There are very many theft charges, ranging from Petty Theft, which in some cases can be reduced to an infraction (like a traffic ticket) to a Residential Burglary when occupants are present.  This is a strike and carries a potential 6 year prison term.  The most common theft is called Commercial Burglary, better known as shoplifting which carries up to a $1000 fine and 6 months jail maximum.  Typically the penalty is far less.
Frequently asked questions about theft:
Why am I charged with burglary when I didn’t break into a house?
  • Burglary is entering property that isn’t your own with the intent to steal (or commit some other crime). This can be any structure (or car) that isn’t yours.  Commercial burglary is burglary of a store.  The crime that has to be proved is that you entered the store with the intent to steal.  That is what differentiates the crime from PC484 theft.  How does the prosecution know what was in your mind when you entered the store?  They will attempt to prove that either by what you said, or “circumstantially” by, say, that you entered without the means to pay for what you took, or by evidence of prior theft crimes, or of planning the theft.  Under this theory, they wouldn’t have to prove whether you technically took anything that didn’t belong to you – just that you entered with the intent to steal.
Why was I arrested for a misdemeanor theft, but now I’m charged with a felony?
  • The difference between a misdemeanor and felony theft is typically the amount of the item allegedly stolen. For the crime to be a felony, that amount is normally anything higher than $950.  The prosecutor may achieve the $950 number by cobbling together multiple items taken by one “course of conduct,” or through an unrealistic valuation submitted by the victim for purposes of restitution.  The burden is on the prosecution to prove that value, however.  The other way theft becomes a felony is in the manner of the taking.  Is it alleged the taking was from a particularly vulnerable person, like the elderly, or a minor?  Was the theft allegedly from the “person” of another?  Was force used?  This is robbery and is a felony regardless of the value of the property taken.
I got a letter from a law office saying I owe “$fill-in-the-blank$” and demanding that I pay it to avoid being sued and my credit being damaged.  Should I pay the amount they are asking?
  • In order to collect or to impact your credit, they would have to get a judgment against you.  This would require them to file a lawsuit in court and serve you with a summons.  Until that happens, don’t respond, and certainly don’t agree with them that you owe them anything.  These letters go out asking for an amount of money that bears no relationship to the value of the item allegedly taken (and which has usually been recovered by the store).  The letter typically asks for far more than the loss, if any.  How can they make this demand if they are not legally entitled to the money?  Because it’s not a crime to ask, and people pay.  If you are scared of being sued, consider this:  Did the store “lose” anything?  If not, then they have no damages to sue for.  If so, then that’s what they could collect in a lawsuit against you.
I was arrested because a friend/ex-girlfriend/family member/neighbor got mad because I didn’t give money/an item to them that they said was theirs.  Now I’m charged with theft.
  • If you believe it’s yours, then you are not guilty and should fight the charge. First of all, theft requires intent to steal at the time you take possession.  If the dispute arose after you had possession, it’s no theft.  There are other theories of theft, like embezzlement, or continuing trespass, where the intent can be formed later.  But even in that scenario, a good faith “claim of right” negates the intent to steal which is required for all theft.  You have to keep in mind, however, that a case is really whatever the evidence is against you.  If the only counter evidence you have is your mental state, this would likely require a trial at which you must testify.
I have prior misdemeanor theft convictions.  Is this shoplifting charge going to be a felony now?
  • There used to be a crime called, Petty with a Prior (PC 666) where multiple petty thefts could eventually add up to a felony conviction.  Now you have to have served a period of incarceration for the prior theft, AND have been convicted of a serious or violent felony, to get a felony conviction for petty theft (under $950).
How can I be charged with felony auto theft for using someone’s car?
  • Vehicle Code 10851 is violated by basically using someone else’s car without permission. This is a wobbler offense (can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony) but since nearly all cars are worth more than $950, it’s usually a felony. This is a terrible law in that, although it’s a theft crime, no mention of any particular mental state is written in the statute.  Therefore, under this law, you could be guilty of a felony by accidentally getting into the wrong car, or keeping a rental car beyond the time you were supposed to return it.  Tow truck drivers are charged with this for towing a car after the owner returns to the vehicle, or if there weren’t the appropriate warning signs posted.  A skillful attorney can get this charge reduced or dismissed, or defeat it outright at trial as I have done.