Petty Theft

PETTY THEFT-PENAL CODE SECTIONS 484(A) AND 488

Petty theft under Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC is defined as theft—in legal terms, “unlawful taking—of any property valued less than $950.00.   Petty theft under Penal Code section 484/488 PC typically occurs when the perpetrator physically takes property, with the intention of permanently depriving the owner, of possession of that property.  This form of petty theft is typically referred to as theft by larceny.

There are various forms of theft that can be charged as petty theft, depending on the value of the property.  These forms of theft include:

  • Theft by means of a trick—for example, intentionally damaging a merchandise in the store so that you can pay less for the merchandise
  • Embezzlement—taking property that has been entrusted it to you and depriving the owner of substantial use of the property.
  • Theft by means of fraud or false pretense—obtaining a person’s consent to your taking of his or her property by telling him or her a lie or fabrication.

WHAT MUST THE PROSECUTOR PROVE TO PROVE YOU GUILTY OF PETTY THEFT UNDER PENAL CODE SECTION 484(A)/488 PC?

In order to obtain a conviction of petty theft under Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt certain elements of the crime.  Precisely what elements the prosecutor has to prove depends on what type of petty theft is being committed. 

Let’s look a closer look at each form of theft.

Larceny

Larceny occurs when you physically take property that does not belong to you.  To prove you guilty of this form of theft, the prosecutor must prove the following:

  1. You took physical possession of property that did not belong to you and that belonged to somebody else;
  2. You did so without permission by the owner;
  3. You did so with the intention of permanently depriving the owner of substantial use or value of the property.

If the value of the property taken is below $950.00, you will be charged with petty theft under Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC.  If the value of the property is above $950.00, you will be charged with grand theft under Penal Code section 487.  

To convict you of theft under Penal Code section 484/488 PC, the prosecutor must prove that you physically moved the property that you intended to steal.   For example, while shopping at Macy’s, Jill grabs a shirt and places it in her purse.  She then walks out of the store with it, intending to steal it.  The shirt is worth $450.00.  Jill is guilty of petty theft by larceny because she took possession of the T-shirt and moved it with the intention of never returning it to the owner.

Now imagine that Jill is at a friend’s house.  She notices an expensive vase.   Surrounded by people at the party, Jill is unable to place the vase in her bag and walk out.  She therefore hides the purse in the bathroom with the intention of taking it the next time she visits her friend.  Jill never gets that chance, but for months her friend cannot find the vase.  If the vase is worth less than $950.00, Jill is guilty of petty theft by larceny under Penal Code section 484/488 PC.  Though she does not permanently remove the vase, she deprived her friend of the use of the vase for several months.

Now imagine if Jill hides the vase for only 24 hours just to get even with her friend over a feud they had.  In this scenario, Jill is not guilty of petty theft by larceny under Penal Code section 484/488 PC because she did hide the vase for long enough to deprive her friend of ownership or possession of it.

Theft by false pretense under Penal Code section 532 PC

Theft by false pretense is prosecuted under Penal Code section 532 PC.  This form of theft occurs when you lie to somebody in order to gain possession of his or her property. 

In order to prove you guilty of theft by false pretense under Penal Code section 532 PC, the prosecutor must establish beyond a reasonable doubt the following elements of the crime:

  1. You knowingly deceived a property owner by telling him or her an intentional lie or misrepresentation;
  2. You did so in order to convince him or her to allow you to take possession of their property; and
  3. That person relied on your false representation or lie

Let’s take a close look at the elements

False pretense

Making a false pretense includes telling an outright lie (that is, giving information that is false and that you know is false), omitting information when you have an obligation to provide that information, representing something as true without any basis for believing that it is true, and making a promise with no intention to fulfill that promise.

For example, Jack presents himself as an auto-body expert to Jill and tells Jill that he could trade in her car for a new one.  Relying on this representation, Jill delivers her car to Jack.  Unbeknownst to Jill, Jack sells the car.  Here, Jack is guilty of theft by false pretense.  Because the value of the car is over $950.00, Jack will be charged with grand theft.

Relying on the false pretense

You are guilty of Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC petty theft under false pretense only if the alleged victim relied on your false representation.   If they entrusted you with their property for any other reason, then you have not committed a Penal Code section 484(a)/48 PC petty theft by false pretense. 

Assume that Jill in the example above allows Jack to borrow her custom-made car in order to bribe Jack into performing a favor for her.  If Jack later sells the car without Jill’s permission, Jack is guilty of theft, but not of theft by false pretenses.

Note that a prosecutor cannot prove you guilty of Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC theft by false pretense unless the prosecutor provides actual evidence—in the form of a writing, a note, or testimony from at least two witnesses or testimony of one witness plus another evidence—indicating a false pretense.  In the example above, if the prosecutor’s only evidence is Jill’s claim that Jack falsely promised to trade in her car, the prosecutor likely cannot prove a case of theft against Jack beyond a reasonable doubt.  The prosecutor would need additional evidence, besides Jill’s statement, that Jack made the false promise.

Theft by Trick

Petty theft under Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC can also be accomplished by a trick.  This form of theft is referred to as “theft by trick.”  To prove you guilty of this form of theft under Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC, the prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:

  1. You obtained property that did not belong to you and that you knew belonged to someone else;
  2. You used some kind of fraud or deceit to acquire possession of the property;
  3. You intended to deprive the owner of the property or of substantial use of the property;
  4. You kept the property in your physical or constructive possession for however length of time; and
  5. The property owner would not have transferred ownership to you but for the fraud or deceit that you used.

The difference between Penal Code Section 532 PC petty theft by false pretense and Penal Code section 484(a)/488 petty theft by trick is that the former allows the thief to have both possession and ownership of the property, while the latter allows the thief to have only possession of the property.  Let’s assume that Jack in the example above tells Jill that he could fix her custom-made car and return it to her.  In this scenario, Jack is guilty of theft by false pretense because Jill never intended to transfer ownership of the car to Jack.  She only intended for Jack to have possession of the vehicle until he fixed the vehicle.

Embezzlement

Petty theft under Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC can also occur in the form of embezzlement.  To prove you guilty of petty theft, the prosecutor has to establish beyond a reasonable doubt the following:

  1. You were entrusted with property that did not belong to you;
  2. You used that property for a purpose the owner did not intend it to be used and you did so for your own benefit;
  3. You did so with the intention of depriving the owner of the use of the property.

If you are charged with Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC petty theft via embezzlement, it is no defense that you intended to return the property.  As long as you fraudulently deprived the owner of the use of the property, you can be charged with Penal code section 484(a)/488 PC Petty theft via embezzlement.

For example, Mario is the pastor of a church.  Mario lost some money in a gambling scheme.  To recover some of that money, he takes $600.00 from the church’s treasury.   He intended to return that money.  Nonetheless, Mario is guilty of Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC petty theft by means of embezzlement.

PENALTIES FOR PENAL CODE SECTION 484/488 PETTY THEFT IN CALIFORNIA

Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC is typically prosecuted as a misdemeanor.  The potential consequences for a Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC misdemeanor include up to 6 months of informal probation, a maximum fine of $1,000.00, and a maximum county jail time of 6 months.

If you have not previously committed a theft crime and the value of the property you allegedly stole is $50.00 or less, your attorney might be able to get the charge reduced to an infraction, punishable by a maximum fine of $250.00.   If the value of the property you allegedly stole is over $50.00, your attorney might be able to convince the prosecution to grant a diversionary plea.   With this form of plea, the petty theft charges against you will be dismissed if you fulfill certain terms and obligations such as repaying the depreciated value of the stolen property and participating in theft classes or community service.

If you have previously suffered theft-related convictions for which you have served time, then you face sentencing under Penal Code section 666 PC.  Under this code section, you may face harsher penalties for your current petty theft conviction.  The theft related convictions that trigger a Penal Code section 666 charge are the following:

Petty theft, Grand theft, Grand theft auto, Burglary, Carjacking, Robbery, and felony receiving stolen property.

To be sentenced under Penal Code section 666 PC, the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt ONE of the following:

  1. Your previous theft conviction was for a theft against an elderly person; OR
  2. You have one theft related conviction from the list of crimes mentioned above, and either you have suffered a prior sex crime conviction, or you have suffered a serious felony conviction for a crime such as murder, attempted murder, and sex crimes against children.

If your record meets the above criteria, then your petty theft can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the specific facts of your case and your criminal history.

If your petty theft with a prior under Penal Code section 666 PC is charged as a misdemeanor, you face up to one year of county jail.   If your petty theft crime under Penal Code section 666 is charged as a felony, then you face 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years of state prison.

DEFENSES TO PETTY THEFT UNDER PENAL CODE SECTION 484(a)/488 PC

  • You had no intention to steal

Petty theft under Penal Code section 4849a)/488 PC requires that you intended to steal or deprive the owner of the use or possession of the property.  If you took the property absent-mindedly, or if you took the property because you actually and reasonably believed that it belonged to you, then you are not guilty of petty theft under Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC.

  • You took the property with the owner’s consent

If you took the property with the owner’s consent, you are not guilty of petty theft under Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC.  Consent, even if later withdrawn, is a complete defense to a Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC charge.  This means that even if the person who gave you consent changed their mind after giving you the property, you are not guilty of petty theft under Penal Code section 484(a)/488 PC.

 

Actual Case

In People v. MM (case number not included per client’s request), Ms. M was charged with petty theft.  Because Ms. M had suffered prior convictions for both theft and violent offenses, the prosecution added a Penal Code section 666 PC sentencing scheme.  Under PC 666, Ms. M faced a significant amount of jail time.  Unfortunately for Ms. M, the facts were not in our favor.  However, Negin worked tirelessly to compile a compelling mitigation package consisting of psychologist’s reports documenting Ms. M’s regimented treatment and daily progress, references from employers and friends, and letters from theft addiction sponsors.  Negin’s relentlessness coupled by daily and consistent progress by Ms. M resulted in formal probation and no jail time for Ms. M.

HOW THE LOS ANGELES CRIMINAL ATTORNEYS CAN HELP YOU

Negin Yamini at Los Angeles Criminal Attorney will painstakingly examine the facts of your case to identify and explore any and all areas of defense on your behalf.  Even if the facts are not in your favor, Negin will take nothing in the police report at face value.  She will conduct her own independent research and investigation to dig deep into weaknesses in the prosecution’s case and identify mitigating factors that can help reduce your charges or bring about a more favorable disposition.

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