California petty theft is the unlawful taking of property that is valued at nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) or less, under Penal Code 484(a) & 488 PC.1
The majority of petty theft cases arise when someone simply physically takes property that belongs to someone else. This is known as "theft by larceny."2
However, there are other, more complicated forms of theft that sometimes give rise to petty theft charges include:
- theft by trick (for example, changing the price tag on an item in a store so that you can pay less for it),
- theft by embezzlement in California law – that is, taking something that has been entrusted to you (usually money), and
- theft by fraud or false pretense (telling a lie in order to persuade someone else to give you their property).3
Here are some examples of activity that can lead to petty theft charges in California:
- Shoplifting DVDs worth a couple hundred dollars;
- “Borrowing” a $500 lawn mower from a neighbor when you have no intention of returning it; and
- Taking a $300 smartphone from a shipment of phones you are delivering for your boss.
Petty theft is a misdemeanor in California law.4
The maximum penalties for most petty theft convictions are a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000), up to six (6) months in county jail, or both.5
There are certain legal defenses that can be very helpful in fighting a California petty theft charge. A good California criminal defense attorney knows how to help you use these defenses to get your charges reduced or dismissed.
Potential legal defenses for fighting petty theft charges include:
- You did not intend to steal the item,
- The item actually belonged to you,
- The person who owned the item consented to you taking it, and/or
- You were falsely accused.
In order to help you understand the California theft crime of petty theft under Penal Code 484 & 488 PC, our California criminal defense attorneys will address the following:
If after reading this article, you have additional questions, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
1. What is the Legal Definition of PC 488 Petty Theft in California?
The legal definition of petty theft in California revolves around certain key facts that the prosecutor is supposed to prove before they can get a conviction. These facts are known as “elements of the crime.”
The elements of petty theft (Penal Code 484 PC) depend on the type of theft that is supposed to have taken place.
1.1. Theft by larceny
Most petty theft cases involved the form of theft known as “larceny”…which usually occurs when someone physically carries off another person's property.
The legal definition of theft by larceny is as follows:
1. You took possession of property owned by someone else;
2. You took the property without the owner's permission;
3. When you took the property, you intended either
a. to deprive the owner of it permanently, or
b. to deprive the owner of it for a period of time long enough that the owner would miss a major portion of the value or enjoyment of property; AND
4. You moved the property…even a small distance…and kept it for a period of time…even a brief one.6
Under PC 484(a), petty theft by larceny requires the defendant to move the property that is being stolen.
Example: Scott is a 16-year-old boy. While visiting a friend's house, he comes across several "adult" videos that belong to the friend's father.
Scott would like to borrow these videos but would not dream of asking to do so. So he sneaks the videos out of the friend's house in his backpack.
Scott does not intend to keep the videos forever. In fact, several months later, he tries to quietly return them to his friend's house…but the friend's father catches him and calls the police.
Scott may still be guilty of petty theft by larceny, even though he intended to return the videos. That is because he deprived the owner of them for several months.
Example: Terry is a college student who is angry at her friend Melissa because of a dispute over a boy they are both interested in. In order to “get even” with Melissa, Terry takes Melissa's cell phone without her permission and hides it for 24 hours before returning it.
Terry did NOT commit the crime of petty theft. This is because she did not intend to deprive Melissa of the cell phone for a long enough period to really affect her ownership or enjoyment of it.7
1.2. Theft by false pretense
Another, probably less common form of petty theft is known as “theft by false pretense” (Penal Code 532) or theft by fraud.
Under Penal Code 532, the legal definition of theft by false pretense is:
- You knowingly and intentionally deceived a property owner by “making a false pretense”…basically, telling him/her something that wasn't true;
- You did so intending to persuade them to let you take possession of their property; AND
- That person let you take possession and ownership of their property because they were relying on your false pretense.8
Because this form of petty theft is more complicated than petty theft by larceny, we will provide more detail on some of the concepts in the legal definition of petty theft by false pretenses.
Making a false pretense
California law says that you make a false pretense if you intend to deceive someone else AND do one of the following things:
- Give information that you know is false,
- Recklessly say something is true without any basis for believing that it's true,
- Fail to give information when you have an obligation to do so, OR
- Make a promise that you don't intend to fulfill.9
Example: Cathy's bicycle chain breaks, and she cannot afford to have it fixed. But her neighbor Rick tells her that he has a friend who operates a sort of “junkyard” for bicycles and would love to have Cathy's bicycle to use for parts. Rick promises Cathy that, if she gives him her bicycle, he will trade it to his friend for another, working bicycle . . . which he will then give to Cathy.
So Cathy lets Rick have her bicycle. But Rick never returns it…in fact, he sells it for parts himself and pockets the cash.
Rick is probably guilty of petty theft by false pretenses. The false pretense in this case was making a promise—to take Cathy's bicycle to his friend and trade it for a working one—that he never intended to fulfill.
Relying on your false pretense
You are only guilty of petty theft if the other person gave up their property to you relying on your false pretense. If they gave you their property for some other reason, then you are not liable for this crime.10
This just means that the false pretense has to be an important reason why the person gave up their property. It does not have to be the only reason.11
Lying to someone to obtain their property is petty theft by false pretenses under PC 484(a).
Example: Let's return to Cathy and Rick from the previous example. Let's say that Cathy has been romantically interested in Rick for a long time. So she lets him have her bicycle for two reasons: because she wants a new bicycle, and because she is looking forward to having a reason to see him again (when he brings her the new bicycle).
Rick may still be guilty of petty theft by false pretense . . . even though Cathy's reliance on his false promise is only one of two reasons why she gave him her bicycle.
Special evidence requirements for petty theft by false pretenses
A jury is not supposed to convict you of petty theft by false pretenses unless the prosecutor can produce one of the following showing that you actually made a false pretense:
- A false writing or “false token” (i.e., some kind of fake document…like an ID card),
- A note or memorandum of the false pretense signed or handwritten by you,
- Testimony from at least two witnesses, OR
- Testimony from one witness plus some other evidence.12
These requirements exist because otherwise it would be too easy for one person to falsely accuse another of petty theft by false pretenses… often in the context of a business deal that went sour. The accuser could claim that the accused person told them something that wasn't true, when really the accused person said no such thing.
Example: Let's go back to Cathy and Rick once again. This time, let's say Cathy's bike breaks and she decides she doesn't want to deal with the trouble and expense of fixing it. So she tells Rick, who knows how to repair bikes, that he can have her bike for free.
Later, Cathy has second thoughts and decides she wants her bike back. Rick won't give it back…so she makes up the story above about him stealing it by false pretenses.
If the prosecutor's only evidence is Cathy's testimony that Rick falsely promised to have her bicycle fixed and return it to her, then Rick should not be guilty of petty theft by false pretenses. The prosecution would have to find some other evidence…besides Cathy's testimony…that Rick made the false promise.
1.3. Theft by trick
Another form of petty theft under Penal Code 484 is so-called “theft by trick.”
The legal definition of petty theft by trick is:
1. You obtained property that you knew was owned by someone else;
2. The property owner let you take possession of the property because you had used some kind of fraud or deceit;
3. When you obtained the property, you intended either
a. to deprive the owner of it permanently, or
b. to deprive the owner of it for a period of time long enough that the owner would miss a major portion of the value or enjoyment of property;
4. You kept the property for any length of time; AND
5. The property owner didn't intend to transfer ownership of the property to you.13
Petty theft by trick may sound a lot like petty theft by false pretense. But the difference is this:
- With petty theft by false pretense, the other person lets the “thief” have both possession and formal title/ownership of the property; BUT
- With petty theft by trick, the owner never intends to transfer ownership to the “thief”…only possession.14
Example: Rick, Cathy, and Cathy's bicycle can again be a helpful example.
Let's say Cathy's bicycle breaks…and instead of telling her he can trade it to his friend for a new one, Rick tells her that his friend will fix the bicycle for free. So Cathy gives Rick her bike to take to his friend, fully expecting that he will give it back.
This is theft by trick…not theft by false pretenses. The reason is that Cathy never intended to transfer ownership of her bike to Rick…she merely intended to give him possession of it long enough for him to get it fixed.
1.4. Theft by embezzlement
The so-called “white-collar crime” of embezzlement in California law can be another form of petty theft.15
Embezzlement can be a form of PC 488 petty theft
The legal definition of petty theft by embezzlement involves the following elements:
- An owner of property entrusted the property to you;
- The property owner did so because s/he trusted you;
- You fraudulently took or used that property for your own benefit; and
- When you took or used the property, you intended to deprive the owner of the use of it (even temporarily).16
You are considered to have taken or used someone else's property “fraudulently” if you took undue advantage of them, or caused them a loss by breaching a duty or confidence.17
Interestingly, it is not a defense to petty theft by embezzlement charges that you intended eventually to return the property.18
Example: Maria is the accountant for a small business. In this capacity, she has control over all of the business's bank accounts.
Maria is falling behind on her car payments. She takes $600 out of the business's reserve account and uses it to make a couple months' car payments. She fully intends to restore the money when her personal finances recover.
Still, Maria may be guilty of petty theft by embezzlement. She was in a position of trust with respect to the small business, she took its money for her own use…and she did intend to deprive the business of the ability to use those funds, even though this was only for a short period of time.
1.5. What is the difference between petty theft and shoplifting?
Penal Code 459.5 PC sets out the separate California crime of shoplifting. The legal definition of shoplifting is:
- Entering a commercial establishment (usually a store),
- While that establishment is open during regular business hours,
- With the intent to steal objects with a value of $950 or less--that is, commit petty theft.19
Shoplifting became a separate offense in November 2014 as part of Proposition 47. (Prior to that, the behavior that is now considered shoplifting could have been charged under California's burglary law.)
You may be charged under California shoplifting laws even if you don't actually succeed in stealing the items. All that matters is that you have the intent to steal them.20
California's shoplifting law is confusing because many people who do succeed in shoplifting items worth $950 or less will actually be charged with PC 488 petty theft, not with PC 459.5 shoplifting. The important thing to remember is that petty theft law focuses on the actual taking of property, whereas shoplifting law focuses on the act of entering a store intending to steal.21
It's important to note that you can be charged only with one or the other of PC 459.5 shoplifting or PC 488 petty theft--not with both. And the penalties for the two crimes are the same for most defendants.22
Example: Kenneth walks into a large department store and removes a men's shirt worth $300 from the shelf.
He carries the shirt to another department and asks if he can return it for a refund--he claims that it was a gift to him and doesn't fit. But the store clerk is suspicious and refuses to issue the refund.
Kenneth didn't succeed in stealing the shirt. But he entered the store intending to deprive the department store of the value of the shirt by getting a cash “refund” for it. Thus, his intent was to commit petty theft through larceny inside the department store.23
That means he is guilty of the crime of PC 459.5 shoplifting.
2. What Is the Difference Between California Petty Theft and California Grand Theft?
The legal definition of California petty theft that we just explained is almost exactly same as the legal definition of California grand theft under Penal Code 487 PC.24 The major difference lies in the type and value of the property that is supposed to have been stolen.
Simply put, in most cases, California theft is petty theft…and not grand theft…when the property that is supposed to have been stolen is worth nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) or less.25
Changes made by Proposition 47
California's petty theft law underwent major changes as a result of the voter initiative Proposition 47, which was passed in November 2014.26
Prior to the passage of Prop 47, a theft was always considered grand theft if the property stolen was either:
- Taken "from the person" of someone else (through, for example, pickpocketing);
- A car; or
- A firearm.27
Before Prop 47, these forms of theft were grand theft even if the value of the property stolen was $950 or below.28
And even now, after the passage of Prop 47, those forms of theft will be treated as grand theft if you have one of the following prior convictions on your record:
- A conviction for a sex crime that requires registration under California's Sex Offender Registration Act; or
- An especially serious felony listed in Penal Code 667(e)(2)(C)--such as murder, attempted murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, forcible sex crimes, and sex crimes against children under 14.29
Determining the value of property
In order to determine whether a given instance of theft was grand theft or petty theft, courts and prosecutors must determine the value of property. To do this, they use something called “fair market value."30
Fair market value is defined as the highest price the property would reasonably have sold for in the open market at the time…and in the place…where it was stolen.31
Sometimes the fair market value of stolen property is obvious. For example, if you were arrested for shoplifting a jacket with a $300 price tag, you would almost certainly be charged with petty theft (or with Penal Code 459.5 PC shoplifting).
But sometimes it's not so obvious. For example, let's say you stole jewelry from someone's house. The jewelry was antique and was last purchased over a century ago. In situations like this, the fair market value of the property can become a big issue in the defendant's criminal case.
It can be difficult to value property for purposes of determining whether you committed grand theft or petty theft.
3. What are the Penalties for PC 488 Petty Theft in California?
Penal Code 484 petty theft is a misdemeanor in California law. The potential consequences of a PC 484 conviction include:
- Informal (also known as summary) probation,
- Up to six (6) months in county jail, and/or
- A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).32
3.1. How to keep petty theft off your record with charge reduction and diversion programs
- this is your first California petty theft conviction…and you have no other theft crime or "theft-related" convictions… AND
- the value of the money, property, services, etc. that you allegedly stole was fifty dollars ($50) or less,
then your California petty theft attorney may be able to convince the prosecutor to reduce your charge to a less-serious infraction. If your case is reduced, you face a maximum $250 fine.33
If it is your first theft or "theft-related" offense, but the item(s) exceeded $50 in value…you still may be able to participate in a petty theft diversion program. Informal diversion is a type of "deal" that your California theft crimes defense attorney may be able to make with the prosecution and that will keep a petty theft conviction off your record.
The way petty theft diversion works is this: the petty theft charges against you will be dismissed. In exchange, you will be required to do some or all of the following:
- Repay the value of the merchandise which you allegedly stole;
- Complete an agreed-upon number of community service hours; and/or
- Attend anti-theft classes.
3.2. Petty theft with a prior under Penal Code 666 PC
Under California Penal Code 666 PC “Petty Theft with a Prior”, if you have been convicted and served time for certain theft crimes, you may face increased penalties for a petty theft conviction.
The prior convictions that lead to increased penalties are:
- Petty theft,
- Grand theft,
- Grand theft auto,
- Robbery, and
- Felony receiving stolen property.34
Luckily, it's not enough to simply have one of these theft crime convictions on your record. To be sentenced under California's “petty theft with a prior” law, one of the following things also needs to be true:
1. Your prior theft conviction is for stealing from, embezzling from, or defrauding an elderly person under California's elder abuse law; OR
2. You have one (1) conviction for a crime from the list above, AND either:
a. You have a prior sex crime conviction that subjects you to the requirement to register as a sex offender under Penal Code 290, OR
b. You have a previous conviction for a serious felony listed in Penal Code 667(e)(2)(C)--such as murder, attempted murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, forcible sex crimes, and sex crimes against children under 14.35
If you meet these requirements, then petty theft becomes a wobbler in California law. This means that the prosecutor may choose to charge it as either a misdemeanor OR as a felony…depending on the circumstances of the case and your criminal history.36
PC 488 petty theft is a misdemeanor in California.
If petty theft with a prior is charged as a misdemeanor, the maximum county jail term increases from six (6) months (for regular petty theft) to one (1) year (for petty theft with a prior).37
And if petty theft with a prior is filed as a felony, then you may face a sentence of sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years in California state prison.38
4. How Can I Fight a California Petty Theft Charge?
Although a California petty theft conviction can subject you to surprisingly severe consequences, the good news is that there are legal defenses available to help you beat petty theft charges.
An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you assert one or more of the following legal defenses to help get your charges reduced or dismissed.
You did not actually intend to steal the item
If you didn't have the intent to steal, you can't be convicted of petty theft – period!39
This means that if your California petty theft attorney can convince the prosecutor, judge, and/or jury that you were simply being absent-minded…that you forgot to pay or something similar…then you are not guilty of petty theft.
This defense applies most often in shoplifting cases.
You may have just been distracted. Maybe your kids were acting up. Maybe you were engaged in a conversation on your cell phone. Maybe you realized that you left something important in the car. Or maybe you were thinking about some bad news that you had just received.
According to San Bernardino criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi40:
"I've seen so many people get falsely accused of petty theft for shoplifting. In today's world where people are so easily distracted, it's perfectly understandable that someone could leave a store…for any number of reasons…while still holding merchandise they didn't intend to steal. It's my job to make sure that the jury not only understands that, but believes it as well."
The legal defense of "lack of intent" is one way to fight a petty theft charge.
You believed the “stolen” item actually belonged to you
This legal defense against petty theft charges applies either
- when the “stolen” property actually belonged to you, or
- when you had a good faith belief…even if you were mistaken…that it belonged to you.41
This is because intent to steal is an element of the crime of petty theft. If you believed an item belonged to you, then you couldn't have intended to steal it.
Example: Kirsten and her sister Stephanie are estranged and haven't spoken in years. Their mother is very ill with cancer. Before she dies, the mother tells Kirsten that she intends to leave her engagement ring to Kirsten.
Kirsten mistakenly believes that the engagement ring is at her sister Stephanie's house. After her mother dies, she goes to Stephanie's house when Stephanie is not home, has Stephanie's daughter let her in to the house, and goes to Stephanie's bedroom, where she takes what she believes is their mother's engagement ring…but is in fact a different ring owned by Stephanie.
Because Kirsten honestly and in good faith believed that she was entitled to take the ring she took…she is probably not guilty of petty theft.
The person who owned the item consented to you taking it
If someone consented to you taking his/her property, there is no petty theft, and you can fight the PC 488 charges.42
Someone who consents to giving you money or other property can't simply change his/her mind after the fact. If you were given consent to take the item(s), that will serve as a defense to a petty theft charge.
That said, your use of the property must be within the scope of the consent. For example, your boss may consent to you taking his/her car on a work errand…but that doesn't mean s/he consented to you taking the car overnight and using it to go out on your own personal excursions.
Also, if the consent was obtained by false pretenses or trick…as we discuss in Section 1.2 and Section 1.3 above…then it will not be a valid legal defense to a petty theft charge.
You were falsely accused
Countless people are falsely accused—framed—and wrongly arrested for California petty theft. Therefore, this is a common and helpful potential legal defense for fighting PC 488 charges.
Example: Bill wants to shoplift a jacket from a store. So he picks up a scarf and quietly places it in the purse of Mary, a stranger who is shopping nearby.
When Mary tries to leave, she is apprehended by security. Bill sneaks out of the store with his jacket while security is busy dealing with Mary. If charged with petty theft, Mary will certainly be able to use the false accusations defense.
5. PC 484(a) Petty Theft and Related Offenses
There are certain related California theft crimes that may be charged instead of…or along with…Penal Code 484 & 488 PC petty theft. Some of these are:
5.1. Penal Code 484 & 487 PC grand theft, grand theft auto, and grand theft firearm
We discussed the legal definition of Penal Code 484 & 487 PC grand theft in Section 2 above. The elements of grand theft are basically the same as those for California petty theft…it's just that grand theft occurs when the property stolen is worth more than $950.43
Also, as discussed in Section 2 of this article, for defendants with certain serious prior convictions, a theft will be grand theft regardless of the value of the property, if the property is
- taken from the person (off of the body) of the property's owner,
- an automobile (of any value), or
- a firearm (of any value).44
So, depending on the kind and value of the stolen property—an issue that might be debatable—the prosecutor will charge you with either grand theft under Penal Code 487 PC or petty theft under Penal Code 488 PC.
Grand theft is usually a wobbler, so it may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. The misdemeanor penalties include up to one (1) year in county jail. The felony penalties may include:
- sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years in county jail, or
- if it involves theft of a firearm, sixteen months, or two or three years in California state prison.45
You may also have heard of grand theft auto…which is a category of grand theft in which the property stolen includes an automobile. Grand theft auto is almost always charged as a felony.
Theft of a car worth more than $950 is grand theft auto, not petty theft.
Also, grand theft firearm is grand theft in which the stolen property includes a firearm. Grand theft firearm is always a felony and carries a California state prison sentence of sixteen (16) months to three (3) years.46
5.2. Penal Code 459 PC burglary and auto burglary
A Penal Code 459 PC California burglary occurs when someone enters a building or other enclosure with the intent to commit a felony or a grand theft once inside.47 The crime of California auto burglary is more or less the same thing…except that it involves entering a car intending to commit a felony or theft, instead of a building.48
If you enter a house, yard, or car and then steal something of relatively little value, you could face charges for both Penal Code 459 PC burglary (or auto burglary) and petty theft.
Burglary is a felony, carrying a county jail term of up to (3) years. But the penalty can be up to six (6) years in California state prison if it is committed in an inhabited house or trailer (that is, where someone is currently living). Auto burglary and burglary of uninhabited structures are wobblers.49
But note that if you enter an open store intending to commit petty theft once inside, you will be charged with Penal Code 459.5 shoplifting rather than with burglary.50
5.3. Penal Code 211 PC robbery
Another well-known California theft crime is Penal Code 211 PC robbery. A robbery occurs when someone uses force or fear to take someone else's personal property from their person or immediate presence.51
It is possible to face charges for both California robbery and Penal Code 488 PC petty theft if, for example, you use force or fear to take property worth less than $950 off of someone's person.
Robbery is always a felony. It carries a California state prison term of two (2) to six (6) years.52
5.4. Penal Code 530.5(e) PC mail theft
Mail theft under PC 530.5(e) occurs when someone knowingly takes someone else's mail from a mailbox, post office or letter carrier.53
This offense is punished differently from petty theft/grand theft, since the "value" of mail is fairly difficult to determine. Mail theft is always a misdemeanor, like petty theft--but it carries a maximum county jail sentence of one (1) year.54
Call Us for Help…
If you or loved one is charged with Penal Code 484 & 488 PC petty theft, and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.
To learn about the crime of petty theft in Nevada, you may visit our page on the crime of petty (petit) larceny in Nevada.
Shoplifting When someone steals merchandise offered for sale in a retail store it
is generically called shoplifting. To commit shoplifting one must
"intend" to permanently deprive the merchant of the value of the
merchandise. Shoplifting most often occurs by concealing merchandise
in a purse, pocket or bag but can occur by a variety of methods. Most
shoplifters are amateurs. However, there are growing numbers of people
who make their living by stealing from retail stores. Amateur
shoplifter can be highly skilled, and some steal almost every day, but
don't do it to make a living. Most amateurs are opportunistic, crude
in their methods, and are detected more often than others.
Professional shoplifters run the gamut from being highly skilled to
thug-like. Some professionals work in teams or use elaborate
distraction scenarios. The crude professionals sometimes use force and
fear much like gang intimidation and often commit grab-and-run thefts.
Being a professional means that they steal merchandise for a living
and like other trades, practice makes perfect. Thoughtful
professionals are very difficult to stop in a society where retail
stores openly display their merchandise.
Shoplifters come in all shapes and sizes, ages and sexes, and vary in
ethnic background, education, and economic status. Some shoplifters
steal for the excitement, some steal out of desire, some steal for
need, some steal out of peer pressure, and some steal because it is
simply a business transaction to them. Some shoplifters are
compulsive, some opportunistic, and some are mentally ill and don't
know any better. Some shoplifters are desperate from drug addiction,
alcoholism or from living on the street. Children and elderly persons
sometime steal without realizing they are committing a crime. In urban
cities, it is not unusual to find a network of "fences" who send out
teams of shoplifters into specific retail stores to shoplift specific
items, much like filling an order for a customer. The fences only pay
10-20 cents on the dollar to the thieves and sometimes pay their room,
board, and provide training on how to steal and defeat the anti-theft
technology. Some fences have been known to bail their workers out of
jail when caught or provide for their legal defense. This creates a
kind of strange street loyalty much like the tale of Oliver Twist.
Theft from stores, including employee and vendor theft, cost retailers
many billions of dollars per year. Independent retail studies* have
estimated theft from retail stores costs the American public 33.21
billion dollars per year. Depending on the type of retail store,
retail inventory shrinkage ranges from .5% - 6% of gross sales with
the average falling around 1.75%....
Loading: Checking Spelling0%