Petty theft offenses are probably the most common form of theft (Penal Code section 484(a)). More often than not, they are also “shoplifting” crimes (Penal Code section 459.5); the “young girl who goes to the mall and steals lipstick from the cosmetics counter”, the “teenage boy who takes a video game from the Best Buy store”, or the “transient who thinks nothing of taking food from the supermarket”. In order to prove that a person committed a crime of petty theft, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant:
- took property owned by another person (business)
- took the property without the owner’s consent
- that he/she intended to deprive the owner of property permanently
- that he/she moved the property and kept it for a period of time
Despite the circumstances that seem to suggest the defendant was stealing an item, there may also exist reasons that are contrary to an intent to steal. For example, the person who took the property was “actually intending to return it, but did not do so right away”, the person who “scans and pays for her market items, but didn’t realize she missed an item in her cart and walks out of the store”, the person who “takes property, thinking he had the owner’s permission”, or alternatively, the person “did not realize the property belonged to anyone”. There are countless circumstances that may reflect a lack of intent to steal and therefore, it is important to discuss these circumstances with a knowledgeable and experienced attorney.
The punishment for petty theft, which is a misdemeanor offense, is punishable by a period of informal probation (usually three years), up to one year of custody in the county jail, fines/fees and restitution, if any. Additionally, all theft-related offenses are considered to be “crimes involving moral turpitude” and as such, there are additional collateral consequences that may include; loss of employment, removal (deportation) from the country and simply, loss of one’s good reputation.
Given all of the consequences for a petty theft conviction, it is extremely helpful to speak with an attorney to develop an effective strategy that can be presented to the local prosecutor. Doing so may prevent the case from being filed in the first place or assist in having it dismissed later. If these results are not possible, then efforts can be made to reduce or lessen the possible penalties.
Practical Note: In misdemeanor cases, especially first-time offenders, where the loss to the victim is less than $50.00, an offender can usually negotiate for an infraction (Penal Code section 490.1).