What is the difference between grand theft and petty theft under California law?

  • Petty theft is when someone unlawfully takes less than $950 of cash or goods from someone else.
  • When the stolen property is worth $950 or more, it becomes grand theft.

los angeles grand theft lawyerThe definition of grand theft is fairly broad, so a number of situations could fall under California’s Grand Theft Laws (487 PC). For example:

  • Breaking into a house and stealing electronics worth more than $950
  • Embezzling from an employer
  • Shoplifting from a jewelry store

Grand theft is a “wobbler” under California law, meaning that it can be prosecuted either as a misdemeanor or felony. This depends on the facts of the case and the criminal history of the defendant.

As a misdemeanor, grand theft is punishable by up to a year in county jail. As a felony, sentences can range as high as three years in state prison.

Let’s take a look at the four major types of grand theft prosecuted under California law.

Grand Theft By Larceny

In order to convict you of a crime, a prosecutor has to convince a jury that all “elements” of that crime were true. The crime of Grand Theft By Larceny has four elements:

  1. You took possession of $950 or more in property owned by someone else, and
  2. You didn’t have permission to take the property, and
  3. You moved the property and kept it for a period of time, and
  4. When you took the property, you intended to either
    1. Keep it permanently
    2. Keep it long enough that the rightful owner would be deprived of a significant amount of enjoyment or value from it.

This means that if someone shoplifts items worth $950 or more, it could qualify as grand theft by larceny. We saw this in recent shoplifting cases involving actresses Wynona Ryder and Lindsay Lohan, where both were charged with grand theft by larceny.

Even in cases where the property was moved a short distance and kept briefly, it can qualify as grand theft by larceny. 

Example: Tim is neighbors with Josh, who shows Tim that he recently bought an $1,100 laptop. Tim is jealous, and he breaks into Josh’s apartment and he steals the laptop.

After a day, Tim has an attack of conscience and he decides to return the laptop. However, before he can, he is arrested. Even though Tim only moved the laptop a short distance, kept it for a short period and had intended to return it, he could be guilty of grand theft by larceny here.

Grand Theft By False Pretense

Grand theft by false pretense (PC 532) has three elements:

  1. You knowingly and intentionally deceived someone by making a statement that wasn’t true, and
  2. You did this to persuade someone to let you take their property valued at $950 or more, and
  3. That person believed your “false pretense” and let you take control of their property.

In other words, the prosecutor has to prove that you meant to trick someone else into letting you take control of their property, and that the other person actually believed it. 

As you might imagine, hearsay and unreliable testimony is common in situations like these. California law recognizes that someone might enter into a business deal with someone else, have second thoughts and claim that the other person defrauded them.

Because of this, prosecutors have special evidence requirements. They have to show:

  • A false writing or “false token” (this can be any kind of writing, like a fake check or contract), or
  • At least two witnesses corroborating the “false pretense,” or
  • At least one witness and other evidence corroborating the “false pretense.”

Grand Theft By Trick

Grand theft by trick has five elements:

  1. You knowingly and intentionally obtained $950 or more in property owned by someone else, and
  2. You used fraud or deceit to do this, and
  3. The property owner didn’t intent to transfer ownership of the property to you, and
  4. You kept the property for a period of time (even if it was brief), and
  5. When you took the property, you intended to either
    1. Keep it permanently
    2. Keep it long enough that the rightful owner would be deprived of a significant amount of enjoyment or value from it.

You’ve probably noticed that grand theft by trick is very similar to grand theft by false pretense. The major difference is that in grand theft by false pretense, the person whose property is taken allows the defendant to take possession and ownership of the property.

In grand theft by trick, the defendant is given possession of the property but intends to unlawfully keep it.

Example: Steve’s car needs to be repaired. His friend John offers to drive it to the repair shop for him, and Steve allows him to take it. Instead of taking it to the repair shop, Steve keeps the car and hides it in a garage in a neighboring town. 

Because John fraudulently represented his intentions in order to get Steve to allow him to take the car and kept the property for a period of time, this could be grand theft by trick.

Grand Theft By Embezzlement

Lastly, the crime of grand theft by embezzlement (503 PC) has four elements:

  1. You were entrusted with $950 or greater in property by the property’s owner, and
  2. The property owner put you in a position of trust, and
  3. You took or used that property, fraudulently, to benefit yourself, and
  4. When you took the property, you intended to either
    1. Keep it permanently
    2. Keep it long enough that the rightful owner would be deprived of a significant amount of enjoyment or value from it.

In other words, even if you meant to return the property, you could still be found guilty of embezzlement.

Example: Jerry is the treasurer for his local HOA. His wife incurs $2,000 in medical bills from a recent surgery. Jerry transfers $2,000 from the HOA’s funds to his personal bank account and uses it to pay his wife’s medical bills. He plans to return the funds when he receives his next paycheck.

Even though Jerry had planned to return the cash, he could be guilty of grand theft by embezzlement here.

Petty Theft

As we mentioned above, the definition of petty theft is almost identical to grand theft. The only difference is that the value of property taken is less than $950.

Defenses Against Grand Theft and Petty Theft Charges

In order to convict you of grand theft or petty theft, a prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that all of the elements we listed above are true.

“Robert really came to my rescue! I found myself under false accusations and he really came through. I was really freaking out, and Robert was able to make me feel like I was in good hands. I can’t recommend his services enough.”Drew, CA

A skilled criminal defense attorney can examine the facts and evidence in your case and build a defense to protect your freedom. Maybe you had no intention to take the other individual’s property? Maybe it was a misunderstanding, or it was your property anyway? Maybe the other person agreed to the transaction in the case and simply “changed their mind.”

If you or someone you love has been accused of grand theft or petty theft, a defense attorney can help you navigate the intricacies of the law and safeguard your freedom. 

Attorney Robert M. Helfend has practiced exclusively in criminal defense in the Los Angeles area since 1984, and he is prepared to take your case. Call today for your free case evaluation — 800.834.6434.