The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting Program finds that Americans experienced an estimated 5,638,455 larcenies across the country in 2016. On average, the property value of stolen items was about $999 per offense. If that sounds like a disturbingly large figure, here's some good news to soften the blow: The rate of estimated larceny thefts actually declined by 2.2 percent from 2015 to 2016, and has seen an optimism-inspiring decline of 20.2 percent since 2007.
In California, however, the trend seems to be reversing. From 2014 to 2016, the state saw a 9 percent rise in larcenies, or about 135 more thefts per 100,000 residents, according to a study released by the Public Policy Institute of California in 2018. While overall California crime rates are still historically low, these shifts make a deep dive into petty theft laws in California more than worth the time.
What Is Petty Theft?
Though it may seem anything but petty when it happens to you, someone stealing your brand new bike from your yard, snatching a handful of $100 bills out of your purse or jacking your $700 4K TV from your apartment is considered petty theft in the state of California. In state Penal Codes 484 and 488, the law defines petty theft as the unlawful taking of property that is valued up to $950. In most cases, petty theft is the old-school type of thievery in which someone physically takes property that belongs to someone else, which is legally defined as theft by larceny.
As common as theft by larceny is, it's not actually the only kind of petty theft – in courts of law, many other types of thievery often give rise to petty theft charges. For example, theft by trick or deception – basically property that you obtain by trickery, like changing out the price tag on an expensive item – may result in a petty theft charge, depending on the value of the item. Likewise, embezzlement may be defined as petty theft, as can theft by fraud or false pretense (also known as theft executed via plain old lying). This all means that petty theft isn't just small-time pickpocketing; borrowing something and not returning it or willfully stealing a package intended for someone else can be defined as petty theft under California law, too.
So, is petty theft a felony or a misdemeanor in California? If the "petty" part doesn't clue you in, Penal Code 490 PC clearly states that petty theft is a misdemeanor on the Best Coast. But various penal codes make the situation a bit more layered than that.
Read More: How to Fight a Petty Theft Charge
In Detail: Types of Petty Theft
Penal Code 532 digs into the definitions of theft by false pretenses. As the name implies, this type of often-petty theft occurs when you knowingly and willfully deceive property owners in an effort to persuade them to let you take their property – if the property was given to you under false pretenses that you created, you may have committed petty theft. Examples of those false pretenses under California law include giving knowingly false information, stating something as fact without any basis, making a promise that you don't intend to fulfill, or even failing to give information that you're obligated to provide. For the law to define this situation as petty theft, the victim must have given up the property under the offender's false pretense; however, the false pretense does not have to be the only reason the property was given over. Typically, a jury will need evidence such as a falsified document or witness testimony from at least two people to convict someone of petty theft by false pretenses.
Theft by trick is similar under Penal Code 484, but in this case, the property owner never intends to transfer ownership over to the thief (though they may intend to allow temporary possession).
This section also delves into the white-collar crimes of embezzlement, which can be petty theft if the offense is valued at $950 or less. Embezzlement happens when you fraudulently take over or use property for your own benefit after the owner of said property entrusts it to you (even if you intended to return it). In charge of the company payroll and writing yourself a few extra checks for $100 here or there? That's embezzlement, and it's also petty theft in California.
Petty Theft Punishment in California
What is the penalty for petty theft in the West Coast's largest state? Petty theft is most commonly punished as a misdemeanor in the state of California; when charged with petty theft as a misdemeanor, offenders are subject to probation and some combination of six months in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000. But since 2014, the answer to that question has also become a little confusing in California.
In 2014, the voter initiative Proposition 47 defined shoplifting as its own unique offense. The waters here are still muddy, as some people who steal less than $950 worth of shoplifted items are still charged with petty theft under Penal Code 488, but others are charged with shoplifting under Penal Code 459.5. The distinction is that to perform petty theft, one must actually take possession of property; one the other hand, you can be charged with shoplifting just for having the intent to steal when you enter a business.
Proposition 47 softened criminal penalties on theft as well as drug possession, shoplifting, identity theft, the receipt of stolen property, writing bad checks and check forgery. It was under this legislation that petty theft became a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
In a post-Prop 47 California, those convicted of a first-time petty theft offense have seen a drastic reduction in sentencing. First-time offenders may receive a fine of up to $400, up to three years of informal probation, or community service hours. Under California Penal Code 491, a first-time petty theft offense may even be considered a simple infraction. An infraction is just about the legal equivalent of being given a speeding ticket, and does not go on your criminal record. The maximum fine for an infraction is $250, but infractions are usually received when the value of the stolen property is under $50.
Section 1170 of Penal Code 490.2 PC notes that repeat offenders (or those with similar past offenses, like carjacking, burglary or grand theft) may be charged with more serious offenses when committing petty theft – petty theft with priors nets you up to a year in county jail alongside the probation and fines; if filed as a felony, jail time may increase to up to three years in state prison. However, in addition to theft-related priors, defendants must also have any conviction that requires registration under the state's Sex Offender Registration Act or a serious felony like murder, forcible sex crimes or vehicular manslaughter. This makes petty theft felony convictions rare in California courts.
Prop 47 and Crime Rates
According to Bay Area CBS affiliate KPIX, California retailers including Target, Safeway, Rite Aid and CVS report increases in shoplifting of at least 15 percent, or in some cases, a doubling in shoplifting incidences between the period when Prop 47 became law in 2014 and mid-2016. KPIX's report notes that Prop 47 has become a concern for both chains such as these and local businesses, as the lessened penalty "likely means the thieves face no pursuit and no punishment."
Violent crime in California also increased by 13 percent after Proposition 47's passing, but changes in crime reporting from the FBI and Los Angeles Police Department account for this troubling rise due to broadened definitions of violent crimes (without the broadened definitions, the increase would look more like 4.7 percent).
Grand Theft in California
California state Penal Code 488 PC gives a pretty interestingly loose definition of petty theft, stating that "theft in all other cases is petty theft." With such broad legal lingo at play, it helps to know California's on-the-book definitions of other types of theft so that we can better understand exactly what "all other cases" means.
Luckily, the law makes it pretty simple. In Penal Code 487 PC, we learn that grand theft is committed when the "money, labor, or real or personal property taken" exceeds $950 in value. In a legal twist that can only happen in the state of California, Penal Code 487 PC (1)(A) actually states that when avocados – yes, avocados – valued at $250 or more are stolen, this also counts as grand theft. Because no one takes avocados more seriously than California (okay, to be fair, that section also covers domestic fowl, farm crops, seafood and other fruits and vegetables).
Previous to Proposition 47's passing in 2014, stealing a car or a firearm was always considered grand theft, even if the items were valued at less than $950. Under Prop 47, that's no longer the case unless you have a prior record as a convicted felon. If you're convicted of grand theft in California, you're subject to a combination of punishments, including county jail time, up to 16 months in state prison, probation, parole, restitution, counseling, community service and up to $10,000 in fines. If the theft involved a firearm, California Penal Code 489 determines that the jail time may increase to up to three years in prison.
More to Know
If you think you're going to fool the California court system by claiming that you were "just borrowing" your neighbor's lawn mower for eight months, think again. State law says that theft by larceny isn't just taking possession of property permanently; depriving the owner of property for a period of time long enough that the owner would miss a significant portion of the item's value also counts. Going even deeper down the rabbit hole, it can even count as larceny under Penal Code 484 if you take an item for an extended period of time – enough to deprive the owner – and intend to return it. Don't go crazy with this legal fine print, though; based on the 1998 California court case of People v. Davis, precedent dictates that temporarily taking something in a teasing, youthful or un-serious fashion won't necessarily get you fined for petty theft (i.e., you won't go to jail for hiding someone's iPhone under the couch cushion for a day as a gag).
That magic value number, $950, holds a lot of weight in California theft proceedings, but how does the law uniformly agree on the value of a theft? Courts and prosecutors in California rely on fair market value, which is based on the highest price the property would reasonably sell for on the market at the time and place of the theft.
California Penal Codes 484(a) and 488 PC serve as the primary source for petty theft rules in the Golden State.
- FBI: UCR: 2016 Crime in the United States: Larceny-Theft
- Los Angeles Times: Thefts Rise After California Reduces Criminal Penalties, Report Says
- Shouse California Law Group: California "Petty Theft" Laws (Penal Code 484(a) and 488 PC)
- California State Legislature: The Penal Code of California
- KPIX CBS SF BayArea: Spike in Shoplifting Blamed on California Prop 47's Reduced Penalties
- LawInfo: Theft in California
As a freelance writer and small business owner with a decade of experience, Dan has contributed legal- and finance-oriented content to diverse sources including Chron, Fortune, Zacks.com, Motley Fool and MSN Money, among others.