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  • Writer's pictureBlair Goss

What Is Petty Theft in California: Penal Code and Penalties

Under the California Penal Code § 484(a) PC, petty theft is a misdemeanor crime and involves someone taking another's property valued at $950 or less. The person taking the property must intend to keep it or deprive the owner of the enjoyment of their property for a period of time. Stealing property valued over $950 falls under grand theft.

Criminal defense attorneys at Goss Law understand how daunting it can be to face arrest for theft crimes. However, it is important to remain silent and avoid talking to law enforcement about the charges or details of the crimes. Those charged with theft crime must immediately contact criminal defense attorneys at Goss Law to discuss their case.

What Is Petty Theft in California?

What Is Petty Theft in California?

California Penal Code Section 484(a) PC defines petty theft as stealing, taking, carrying, leading, or driving away another's real or personal property valued at $950 or less. It is a misdemeanor crime, and the prosecutor must prove the following four key elements of petty theft:

  • The defendant took possession of another's property;

  • They did it without the property owner's consent;

  • When taking the property, the defendant had the intention to deprive the owner of the property; and

  • The defendant moved the property and had it for a period of time.

It does not matter whether the defendant intended to use the property they stole or benefit from it, as the defendant is guilty of theft if they intended to deprive the owner or possessor of the property. Goss Law can also advise on what felony theft in California is.

Does the Victim Need to be the Property Owner?

Under California Penal Code § 484(a) PC, the victim does not necessarily need to be the property owner but can also include the possessor of the property. If a person is in possession of a property valued at $950 or less and someone else takes it from them, it will be considered petty theft.

What Is the Intent to Deprive?

The prosecutor must prove that the defendant had the intent to deprive another of their property, and to do that, they must show:

  • The defendant deprived the property owner or possessor of the main value of the property;

  • and the defendant intended to deprive them for a given time.

It is important to note that the defendant may try to argue that they intended to return the property. However, for that legal defense to stand, they must return the property within a reasonable time, and a judge will decide what "reasonable time" is by reviewing the case's circumstances.

Is It Important to Move the Property under California Penal Code § 484(a) PC?

Under California Penal Code § 484(a) PC, the defendant must move the property away for it to be a petty theft. The movement of the property must include the following three elements to prove petty theft:

  • The defendant severs the property from the owner or its possessor;

  • The defendant possesses the goods; and

  • The defendant moves the property regardless of the distance they move it.

Is It a Single Crime If the Defendant Steals Multiple Goods?

One of the questions that arise when an individual steals or takes multiple goods is whether or not it constitutes a single crime or whether each property stolen will be a separate offense.

The theft will count as a single crime if the individual steals multiple items from a single person and if their actions were part of one plan or intent. Under the law, the combined value of the goods stolen will be the value of the property taken.

Forms of Petty Theft in California

There are four major forms of petty theft in California, including the following.

Theft by Larceny

Larceny is the most common form of petty theft and refers to the unlawful taking or stealing another's property. The nature of property under larceny is personal property and may include electronic equipment, clothing, bicycles, furniture, and jewelry. Furthermore, the value of the stolen goods must be $950 or less to fall under petty theft.

Theft by Trick

Theft by trick involves a person tricking another by making false statements to obtain the possession of their personal property. To convict a person of theft by trick, the prosecutor must prove the following elements:

  • The defendant got hold of another's property;

  • The defendant obtained the property from the property owner through fraud and deceit;

  • Upon taking the property, the defendant intended to deprive the property owner of their property for a period of time long enough for the owner to miss a major part of the property;

  • The defendant kept the property with them regardless of the length of time; and

  • The property owner did not intend to transfer ownership of their property to the defendant.

Theft by Embezzlement

Under Penal Code 503, the prosecutor can charge an individual with theft by embezzlement, but for a conviction, they must prove the following four elements:

  • The property owner entrusted the defendant with their property;

  • The property owner entrusted their property to the defendant as they trusted them;

  • The defendant took advantage of the situation and benefited from the property; and

  • The defendant intended to deprive the owner of the property.

Simply put, theft by embezzlement occurs when a person takes another's property fraudulently and causes them loss. In this case, since the defendant acquires the property through fraudulent means, they cannot argue that they intended to return it as a legal defense.

Theft by Fraud

Falling under Penal Code 532, theft by fraud is when a person intentionally deceives the property owner by making a false or fraudulent representation or a false pretense, persuading the property owner to hand over the property to them, and the property owner hands over the property relying on the false pretense.

Under the law, making a false pretense involves the person knowing that they are providing false information, recklessly claiming something is true without any evidence, failing to provide all the information when they should, or making a promise that they don't intend on fulfilling.

The defendant can only face theft by fraud charges if there is false pretense involved, meaning the property owner relied on the false information provided by the defendant before giving up their property.

Legal Defenses to Petty Theft in California

There are several legal defenses available for the defendant to use to minimize or avoid petty theft charges in California, and these include the following.

The Claim of Right

The intent of theft is the most critical element when it comes to petty theft, and if the defendant believed they had a legitimate claim over the property, then they did not have the intent to commit theft. They must prove that they believe the property is theirs by providing documentary evidence, recordings, witness testimonies, or other relevant evidence.


There would be no grounds for a petty theft conviction if the property owner gave their consent to the defendant to take their property.

An example could include the owner giving consent to the defendant to take their property but later changing their mind and reporting it as stolen.

In such a situation, the defendant can use the legal defense of consent to avoid petty theft charges as long as they can provide evidence such as surveillance footage, witness testimony, or written permission.

Borrowed the Property

Under the Penal Code 484, there must be an intent to deprive the property owner of the benefits of their property. If the defendant borrowed the property with the intention to return it, they must do so within a "reasonable" timeframe.

Evidence may include proof of a text message, recorded call, or an email stating that the defendant acknowledges borrowing the property and intends to return it on a specific date that falls within the "reasonable" timeframe.

Lack of Intent

In some cases, it could be possible that the defendant accidentally took the property, believing it was theirs, or mistakenly believing they had permission to take it. If that happens, the defendant can argue that they did not intend to steal the property to avoid a petty theft conviction.

What Are the Penalties?

Petty theft, in California, is a misdemeanor crime, and the consequences may depend on the circumstances surrounding the case and the defendant's prior petty theft conviction or criminal history.

Typically, the consequences of petty theft may include a county jail sentence of up to six months or a maximum fine of $1,000.

Can the Defendant Try to Get the Offense Expunged?

According to Penal Code 1203.4, an individual may be able to avoid the penalties or disabilities arising from a petty theft conviction by getting the offense expunged.

A criminal record can taint a person's reputation and affect their career opportunities, especially when employers are conducting background checks before hiring. An expungement can remove criminal charges from a person's record, giving them a second chance to have a normal, stress-free life.

One of the major advantages of getting an offense expunged is that the defendant is under no obligation to disclose the details of their past criminal conviction.

Under the California Penal Code Section 1203.4, a defendant may be able to get the offense expunged if they complete probation and they are:

  • Not charged with a crime;

  • Not on probation; or

  • Not serving a criminal sentence.

Is Petty Theft Different than Shoplifting?

Is Petty Theft Different than Shoplifting?

The California Penal Code Section 459.5(a) addresses shoplifting and defines it as a theft crime involving a person walking into a commercial business during business hours with the intent to steal goods valued at $950 or less.

It is easy to confuse shoplifting with petty theft, as the theft crime involves stolen property worth $950 or less in value. However, the two are different, as petty theft focuses on the actual taking of the property, while shoplifting involves entering a commercial business with the intent to steal. Even if the person does not successfully steal goods, their actions could be enough to face shoplifting charges.

The consequences for shoplifting may include a county jail sentence of up to six months, a maximum fine of up to $1,000, or both. Shoplifting is one of the related offenses to petty theft as they're typically charged under California Penal Code Section 484(a). Other related offenses include petty theft with a prior offense, grand theft, and burglary.

Here is an example to explain the concept of shoplifting and petty theft.

Johnathon agrees to steal a $2 chocolate bar from a convenience store during business hours. He admits that he did not have any right to the chocolate bar but intended to keep the chocolate with themselves to eat later. Since prosecutors are charging Johnathon under Penal Code Section 484(a), Johnathon argues they cannot be guilty under Section 495.5(a).

This is a classic example of theft crime involving shoplifting and petty theft. Johnathon admits to both in the example above, but under California Penal Code Section 459.5(b), the law cannot charge Johnathon for both crimes involving the same property. Johnathon stands correct, and the prosecutors must either charge him for shoplifting or petty theft, but not both.

How Can an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney at Goss Law Help Defendants?

Whether an individual steals another's property or merchandise with the value of the property below $950 or greater, they must reach out to experienced criminal defense attorneys at Goss Law.

Depending on the circumstances surrounding the case, the legal team at Goss Law can help the defendant in many ways, including the following:

  • Provide them with legal advice: One of the most important assistance a defendant facing theft charges can receive is legal advice. A Sacramento theft lawyer at Goss Law has extensive experience fighting criminal defense cases and can help clients understand their legal options.

  • Gather evidence and build a defense strategy: A defendant could use several legal defenses to potentially lower or eliminate their sentence. However, without an experienced legal team, proving the legal defenses can be extremely challenging. Attorneys at Goss Law are experts in building a strong defense to protect their client's rights. They can help gather evidence and successfully defend the charges levied by the prosecutor on the defendant.

  • Negotiate a plea deal: Attorneys at Goss Law have the expertise and connections to negotiate a plea deal for their clients by getting them a reduced sentence in exchange for community service, restitution, or other programs.

  • Represent the defendant in court: Sometimes, a client is wrongly accused of a crime. The client may want to go to court to set the record straight and clear their name. Attorneys at Goss Law have proven trial experience with superior results, making them a formidable force to tackle in court.

Arrested for Theft? Call Attorneys at Goss Law!

Those arrested for theft in Sacramento, California, must immediately contact (916) 313-3133 to schedule a free consultation with experienced criminal defense attorneys at Goss Law.


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