California Shoplifting Laws: Grand Theft, Petty Theft, Punishment

••• Михаил Руденко/iStock/GettyImages

Related Articles

California shoplifting laws only cover those situations where someone takes or intends to take merchandise valued at $950 or less during business hours. If not all the requirements for a shoplifting case are met, grand theft or petty theft charges may be filed instead. Burglary, trespassing and robbery charges may also be filed alongside theft charges in some cases.

California Shoplifting Charges

Shoplifting in California is defined as entering a commercial establishment during regular business hours and intending to, or successfully taking, goods valued at $950 or less. There are some key factors that must be met for a crime to meet the legal definition of shoplifting:

  • The person must have entered the business during its regular operating hours, otherwise the crime could be charged as petty theft, trespassing and/or burglary. 
  • The person must have intended to take the items. this means that while someone can be charged even if they failed to actually take the goods in question, if a shopper accidentally forgets to pay for an item, she did not break the law. For example, shoppers often forget to pay for items stored at the bottom of the shopping cart, and when this happens, it is not a crime because it is not intentional.
  • If the goods the person wanted to steal were valued at more than $950, the charge will automatically be upgraded to grand theft.

Shoplifting is a misdemeanor in almost all cases and the maximum penalty for the charge of misdemeanor shoplifting is six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. In some cases though, the charge may be a felony, but only if the defendant already has certain serious convictions on his record, including homicide or any crime requiring registration as a sex offender. As a felony, the penalties include a fine of up to $10,000 and 16 months, two years or three years in jail.

California Theft Charges

Whereas shoplifting involves the theft or intent to steal something valued at $950 or less, if someone takes merchandise valued at more than $950, he has committed grand theft. Similarly, since shoplifting laws require the theft to occur during regular business hours, if someone enters a business outside of those hours and takes property worth $950 or less, then he committed petty theft. It's important to recognize that while shoplifting cannot be charged alongside theft or burglary charges, theft and burglary charges can be filed together.

Petty theft is generally defined as the act of taking goods valued at $950 or less, however when merchandise is taken from a commercial establishment this only applies outside of business hours. This crime is a misdemeanor with the same penalties as shoplifting, namely a fine of up to $1,000 and a maximum jail sentence of up to six months. Grand theft is the act of taking goods valued at more than $950 and can be either a misdemeanor or a felony. As a misdemeanor, it carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and $1,000 in fines, while a felony charge can result in a sentence of 16 months, two years or three years in jail.

While the value of goods can sometimes be difficult to determine when someone steals property from another person, it is fairly easy to evaluate the amount of goods taken from a retail establishment. That's because theft in these cases merely involves adding up the retail value the shop charges for the items. It is important to recognize that the value of items can only be added together if they were taken in one continuous incident, so if someone shoplifted different items all worth $950 or less on different occasions, he can be charged with multiple counts of shoplifting, but the items would not count together towards a grand theft charge.

Shoplifting Vs. Burglary

Prior to 2014, California did not distinguish shoplifting (the act of stealing goods from a store while acting like a customer) from other forms of theft. Unfortunately, this also meant that those who were accused of shoplifting were often charged with the more serious crime of burglary, which can be a felony or a misdemeanor, whereas shoplifting is always a misdemeanor. That's because California defines burglary as entering a premises with the intent to commit a theft or felony once inside, even if the crime itself was never carried out.

In 2014, voters passed Proposition 47 in an effort to reduce the incarceration rates in the state. This proposition redefined many crimes that could be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor to crimes that could only be misdemeanors, including shoplifting. Those who had already been sentenced to a felony for a crime covered by Prop 47 could even be resentenced under a misdemeanor charge.

It's worth noting, though, that anyone who actually took goods from a store, can not only be charged with grand theft or petty theft, but also with second-degree burglary; first-degree burglary is limited to cases involving a residence. Second-degree burglary can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. As a misdemeanor, it carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. As a felony, it can carry a sentence of 16 months, two years or three years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

Other Charges Related to Shoplifting

Most true cases of shoplifting do not involve trespassing charges since the crime requires entering an establishment during business hours. If someone breaks into a commercial property while it was closed though, trespassing charges may apply. Most trespassing charges are only infractions, punishable by no more than a fine, but if the person interferes with the owner's property rights by destroying property or stealing goods, the charge will be a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and $1,000 in fines.

Robbery charges will not apply in most shoplifting or theft cases since it always involves the use of force or fear. But when someone accused of taking an item physically resists the person attempting to prevent the theft, then he could also be charged with robbery. Robbery is a very serious felony offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. Additionally, robbery counts as a strike under California's three strikes law, meaning that someone who gets two more strikes under this law can be sentenced to 25 years to life.

Shoplifting Laws and Minor Offenders

Some of the most frequent offenders under the California shoplifting law are minors. That means they will be charged under the juvenile court system. Although California juvenile shoplifting laws and penalties are the same as those faced by adults, the goal of the juvenile court system is to rehabilitate rather than to punish, so diversion programs and community service are the preferred methods of punishment over incarceration. Though a minor can be sentenced to the same maximum penalty as an adult, her time will be served in a juvenile detention facility, rather than in jail.

It is worth recognizing that anyone accused of shoplifting who is under 12 can no longer be tried in juvenile court as of 2019. And as of 2020, children under 12 must be released to their parents when they come into contact with law enforcement officers for any crime outside of those involving serious violent crimes or sex offenses.

References

About the Author

Jill Harness is a legal blog writer with experience creating SEO-based content for attorneys in a variety of practice areas. Her work has earned the #24 spot on Feedspot's list of the top 75 criminal law blogs. You can find out more about her experience and how to contact her through her website, www.jillharness.com.