Theft is the crime of taking someone else’s property unlawfully to deprive him or her of its enjoyment. Theft is a crime of moral turpitude, which can land you in jail and affect your immigration status. If you or a loved one is facing petty theft charges, you have to seek the services of a lawyer to help you fight the charges. The Orange County Criminal Lawyer has years of experience in dealing with petty theft and related charges. The experience and knowledge in this area of law make the firm the best choice for your criminal defense.

Overview of Petty Theft

When you take the property of another person intending to possess it, you are committing theft. Petty theft violates California Penal Code 484 PC, which punishes the theft of items whose value is less than $950.

The court can charge you with theft even if you intend to return the stolen goods, or you have returned them upon discovery. If you return the item before the prosecution files charges, the court will decide whether the time between taking and returning the property is reasonable. If it is unreasonable, then you will have successfully deprived the owner of the primary value of the property. The prosecution will determine whether the offense meets the four essential elements of petty theft. These are:

  • Taking the possession of someone else’s property
  • Without the consent of the owner
  • You intended to deprive the owner of the property permanently
  • You moved the item and kept it for any period (the length of distance or time does not matter)

You can be charged with various forms of petty theft, including:

Theft by Embezzlement PC 503

Embezzlement is an offense commonly committed by employees in both the private and public sectors. It involves appropriation of funds or property, which the employer or owner has entrusted to you. When you take such property for personal gain without the consent or knowledge of your employer, you risk facing charges of petty theft. The prosecution will charge you with petty theft is the amount embezzled is less than $950.

The prosecution will have to prove that you:

  • Took the property or funds of the victim
  • Had a relationship of trust with the victim at the time of the offense
  • You breached the trust the victim had in you
  • When taking their property, you intended to deprive the owner of its enjoyment or value

Theft by Fraud

You are guilty of theft by pretense or fraud (PC 532) if:

  • You intentionally deceive another person through pretense or misrepresentation of facts
  • With the intention that the person gives you their money or property
  • The victim relies on the pretense to provide you with his or her property

In addition to proving the above elements, the prosecution will have to show that:

  • You provided the victim with information that you knew was false
  • You say something is true without any basis or belief that it is true
  • You fail to give information that you are supposed to
  • You make a false promise

When the victim gives up ownership or possession of his or her property partly or wholly because of your pretense, you are guilty of theft by fraud. You will be convicted of petty theft if the amount involved is less than $950.

Theft by Larceny

Larceny is the most common form of petty theft in California. It refers to the offense of taking someone's property and moving it without the consent of the owner. The prosecution must prove that when taking and moving the item, you intended to deprive the owner of its value.

Theft by Trickery

If you deceive someone to deprive them of their property, you could be charged with theft by trickery. Theft by trickery includes elements such as:

  • You took the property of another person
  • The victim gave you possession of their property because you used fraud or deceit
  • You intended to keep the property such that the owner would lose the enjoyment of its value permanently or a long enough time
  • You kept the property for any period
  • The owner had no intention of transferring ownership to you

Understanding the elements of petty theft can be complicated. You need to understand when taking someone’s property becomes an offense.

One of the confusing elements is moving the object in question. Moving the item means that you have removed the item from the possession of its owner, giving you complete possession, and you move the property to the slightest degree.

For example, if you are at a friend’s house and take a gold watch to view it, you have not committed an offense. However, if you take the watch and stuff it into your pocket, you have committed theft. By stuffing the watch into your pocket, you have deprived the owner of its possession and moved it at least to a slight degree.

Another important element is the intent to deprive the owner of the use or enjoyment of the property. You could be charged with petty theft even if you intended to return the stolen item eventually. For example, if you took your friend's watch, but you intend to use it at a wedding, then return it, you could still be charged with petty theft. However, if your friend lent you her coat and you find a watch in the coat pocket, you cannot be guilty of depriving her of its use.

The prosecution could charge you with multiple cases of petty theft if you steal from different victims. However, if you steal multiple items from the same defendant, you will face a single charge of petty or grand theft, depending on the value of stolen goods.


Petty theft is a misdemeanor punished by up to six months in county jail and a fine of $1000. The court could also release you on informal probation.

In some cases, you can negotiate for a charge reduction if the value of the stolen goods does not exceed $50, and it is your first offense.

If this is your first offense, you may qualify for a pretrial diversion program. The court will agree to dismiss your charges once you fulfill the set conditions. These conditions include completing community service, attending an anti-theft class, and paying the victims what they lost.

Petty Theft with a Prior

Petty theft is a less serious offense, which the court charges as a misdemeanor. However, if you have certain prior convictions, the penalties can be stiffer. First, the court charges you with a PC 484 violation before charging you for a prior offense. Some of the applicable priors for petty theft include:

  • You have a previous conviction for petty theft, grand theft, burglary, carjacking, robbery, or receiving stolen property. You must have spent time in jail or prison for the offense.
  • In addition to a conviction for any of the mentioned offenses, you have to have either
    • Committed a theft offense in violation of elder abuse laws
    • Been convicted of a sexual offense that requires registration as a sex offender
    • A conviction for a violent felony

Petty theft with a prior is a wobbler offense charged depending on your criminal history. The penalties for a misdemeanor conviction will include up to one year in county jail and up to three years in state prison for a felony conviction.

If you are convicted for petty theft with a prior, you could be deported even for the misdemeanor conviction. If you are an immigrant or permanent resident, be sure to ask your lawyer about the consequences of the offense to your citizenship.

If you are facing charges for petty theft with a prior, you can challenge both the prior conviction and the current charge.

Defense attorneys prefer filing for a bifurcate trial where you go through two separate trials. In one trial, the court will determine whether you are guilty of the current charge of petty theft. In the second trial, the court determines whether the previous convictions qualify as petty theft priors.

To fight against the current charges, you can use several defenses including:

  • False accusation
  • A rightful belief that you owned the item in question
  • The owner gave their consent to you having the item
  • Lack of intent

Legal Defenses

Most people might think petty theft charges are petty. However, the record of a conviction stays on your criminal record, and the public can view it. However, with the right legal defense team, you can fight these charges. Even if you are convicted, you can still have your records expunged to free yourself from the negative effects of a conviction. Some of the acceptable legal defenses for petty theft include:

Lack of Intent

When you are charged with petty theft, the prosecution must prove that you had the intent to steal the item and deprive its owner of the value or enjoyment of the property.

For example, if you borrow someone’s property but fail to return it by the agreed time, and the owner files charges, you can use forgetfulness to prove that you did not intend to keep the item or deprive the owner of its use. Instead, you accidentally forgot to return it.

If you were accused of theft by embezzlement or fraud, you cannot prove your lack of intent by showing that you intended to return the item later. You meet the intent requirement for these offenses once you take the property of the other person without their permission or through fraud.

However, if you returned the item before the prosecution filed charges, the act can be a mitigating factor that results in reduced charges.

A Good Faith Belief That You Own the Property

If you have a reasonable belief that the stolen item belongs to you or you have a right to it, then you cannot be guilty of committing petty theft. When using this defense, you must provide the reasons why you believed that you had a right to the property.

For example, if you took something that you thought to have inherited from your parents, then you might successfully prove that you did not intend to steal it.

In some cases, you can use the defense even when the belief is false or unreasonable. In such a case, you have to prove that the belief was honest.

For example, you cannot claim that you believed an item in a shop to be yours. However, say your friend is visiting your house. He or she comes with a piece of jewelry, which they accidentally drop. While cleaning, you store the jewelry as your own, since it resembles 0one of yours. You can successfully convince the jury that the similarity in the items led you to believe that the item was yours.


The prosecution could bring charges of theft against you even if an officer induced you into committing the offense, which you would otherwise have not committed. Entrapment occurs when a law enforcement official encourages or gives the defendant the idea of committing a crime so that he or she can prosecute the defendant.

Entrapment is a form of misconduct, and the evidence collected thereof cannot be used to punish you. If you can prove that you would not have committed the offense absent of the officer’s induction, the court might dismiss your charges. 


Duress is a suitable defense to prove the lack of intent to commit the theft offense. When using coercion, you have to prove that a third party threatened your life or that of another person.

You have to prove that the person threatened to kill you or another person or cause serious bodily injury unless you commit the offense.

When using this defense, the burden shifts to the prosecution to prove that you acted voluntarily. If the prosecution cannot prove that you acted willingly, then it might decide to dismiss your charges.

False Accusations

False accusations arise from anger, jealousy, and spite. They are damaging to your reputation and credibility. False accusations can lead to a wrongful conviction for an offense you did not commit.

Your lawyer should be ready to investigate the person who brought the charges against you and the witnesses to the offense.

False accusations can also arise if the "victim" understands what they are getting into, but he or she turns against the defendant when things fail to work out. For example, if you explain to the defendant a business venture which he or she agrees to invest in, but you lose the money, the "victim" could accuse you of false pretenses to recover his or her money.

The Owner Gave You the Item

Theft happens if you take someone else’s property without his or her consent. However, if the person gave you consent to use or take their property, then you cannot be guilty of theft.

Most of these defenses can have your charges reduced or dismissed. However, the prosecution will try its best to convict you of the offense. You might get offers of a guilty plea in exchange for lenient sentencing as soon as the arraignment proceedings.

If you are representing yourself, the likelihood of settling for an unfavorable option is high. Therefore, you should hire a lawyer to represent you. If you cannot afford a private lawyer, the court will appoint a public defender for you.

Hiring a lawyer for your defense is important for several reasons:

  • Theft attorneys are familiar with various laws that can be used in prosecuting the offense, including sentence enhancements and additional charges. The attorney can, therefore, fight for exemption of additional charges and use some winning defenses to cast doubt on the prosecution's case.
  • A theft attorney has experience in handling theft offenses through the court process. If you choose to represent yourself, you will be on a steep learning curve. You have to understand the working of the court and defending yourself. Eventually, you will waste time, resources, and risk stiffer penalties due to poor representation. Settle on hiring a lawyer who has the courtroom experience and understands the law better.
  • An attorney can offer you advice and different perspectives from which to handle your case. Theft attorneys know how to identify the common weaknesses in the prosecution's They can tell when the prosecution has a solid case. Such knowledge, coupled with their experience in defending clients against charges of theft, can provide a unique perspective, which can save you from a conviction or earn you alternative sentencing options.

Hiring an attorney when you are facing petty theft charges can mean the difference between a conviction and the dismissal of your charges. Therefore, make sure you choose one who has a record of successfully handling theft charges. Make sure you can afford a lawyer, as well.

Related Offenses

Some of the offenses that can be charged instead of petty theft include:

Grand theft

Grand theft is unlawfully taking of another person’s property, where the property is worth more than $950. Grand theft arises from the different forms of theft, such as embezzlement, theft by trickery, larceny, and theft by fraud.

Grand theft is a wobbler offense, depending on the facts of the crime and your criminal history. The penalties include:

  • Up to one year in jail for a misdemeanor offense
  • Up to one year in county jail or 16 months, two years or three years in a county jail for simple grand theft
  • 16 months to three years in state prison for grand theft firearm

The court will also enhance your sentence as appropriate depending on whether:

  • The theft was connected to a criminal gang
  • The value of the stolen goods was very high (from $65,000)
  • Multiple grand theft offenses

Robbery PC 211

Robbery is taking a person's property without his or her consent using force and in his or her immediate presence. California convicts all charges of robbery as felonies. 

The courts charge robbery as either first or second-degree robbery, depending on the circumstances of the offense. You are guilty of first-degree robbery if:

  • The victim is a driver or passenger in a vehicle for hire, for example, a taxi, trolley, subway
  • The robbery takes place in an inhabited house or facility
  • You commit the offense immediately after the victim leaves an ATM

The penalties for first-degree robbery include:

  • Formal probation
  • A state prison term of three, four or six years which may increase to three, six or nine years if two or more people commit the robbery in an inhabited dwelling
  • A fine of $10,000

Second-degree robbery does not meet the standards of a first-degree robbery. It is also a felony punishable by:

  • Felony probation
  • A state prison term of two, three or five years
  • A fine of up to $10,000

You will be charged with multiple counts of robbery for every victim on whom you apply force or instill fear to take his or her property. You will still be charged with multiple counts robbery even if you instill fear in two people but take the property of one of them.

You will also receive sentence enhancements depending on the circumstances of the offense. The common sentence enhancements include:

  • An additional three to six years for causing great bodily injury on the victims(s)
  • An additional ten years for using a gun in the commission of a robbery
  • Another 20 years for willfully firing a gun while committing a robbery
  • 25 years to life for causing great bodily injury or death during the commission of a robbery with a firearm

You will also get a strike for any conviction of robbery. If you have a prior strike, your sentence doubles. For a third strike, you face a potential life sentence.

Find a Orange County Criminal Lawyer Near Me

Petty theft charges can change your life and leave you with a permanent criminal record. If you are an immigrant, you could lose your citizenship status or the ability to become a permanent resident. Therefore, you need to contact a theft defense lawyer to avoid or reduce the consequences of a conviction. The Orange County Criminal Lawyer defends people charged with petty theft in Orange County and Southern California. We dedicate our experience and expertise to achieve the best we can for every case. Contact us at 714-262-4833 for a free non-obligatory consultation.