California Larceny Law: Crimes and Penalties

California Larceny Law: Crimes and Penalties
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Larceny is the basic crime of theft in California. It is among the various crimes identified in California's Penal Code, including larceny, robbery, burglary, carjacking, embezzlement, fraud and identity theft, that relate to the illegal act of stealing.

The crime of larceny occurs in a variety of ways in California. Each variation is slightly different in terms of what elements the prosecutor must prove to convict a suspect of a specific type of larceny. Under California larceny laws, larceny can be a felony or a misdemeanor with penalties ranging from fines to serious jail time.

What Is Larceny in California?

California theft and larceny laws are found in California Penal Code Sections 484 through 487. Larceny is a crime that involves stealing property, and many people wonder if there is a difference between larceny and theft. While the answer is yes in some states, under California larceny laws, the two terms are interchangeable.

Larceny is a legal term for theft. California theft laws identify two levels of the crime, grand theft and petty theft; grand theft can carry a much more severe criminal penalty.

Grand Theft vs. Petty Theft

Today, the only distinction between the elements of grand theft and those of petty theft is the monetary value of the stolen goods. If the value of the property stolen exceeds $950, the crime is grand theft and can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. If the value of the property taken is $950 or less, the crime is petty theft, usually charged as a misdemeanor.

The only time a low-value theft can be charged as grand theft is if the person charged – the defendant – has been required to register as a sex offender in California or has been convicted of a serious felony. However, the clear distinction between grand theft and petty theft based on the value of the property stolen wasn't always part of the larceny law in California.

History of the Grand Theft/Petty Theft Distinction

For many years, California larceny law identified grand theft by the type of property stolen. Under the prior version of the statute, thefts of certain types of goods, like guns and cars, were classified as grand theft regardless of the value of the property. That means that the theft of a $100 gun would be charged as grand theft.

Many believed that this law led to inequitable results and set out to change it. In California, laws can be changed by the legislature or by a ballot proposition that passes with a sufficient margin. In November of 2014, Proposition 47 passed to limit grand theft to property with a value of over $950. So now, the theft of an old, cheap car is a petty theft, as is the theft of a gun valued at $950 or less.

Penalties for Grand Theft

Under California larceny laws, grand theft is usually a wobbler offense. That means that the prosecutor can charge the crime of grand theft as either a misdemeanor or a felony. This decision turns on the details of the case and the criminal history, if any, of the accused.

The felony/misdemeanor decision makes a big difference in potential penalties. Someone convicted of grand theft as a misdemeanor can face one year in a county jail, while a felony conviction for grand theft can bring 16 months, two years or three years in county jail. There is one exception: Grand theft of a firearm is always charged as a felony.

Someone convicted of grand theft felony can get a sentence of even more time in jail if the value of the stolen property is particularly high. That is, the penalties are said to be "enhanced" for higher value thefts. Potential penalties start at one year if the stolen goods are worth more than $65,000 to four years if the value of the stolen property is more than $3,200,000.

Penalties for Petty Theft

California petty theft is usually charged as a misdemeanor offense. Someone convicted of misdemeanor petty theft may be ordered to pay a fine of up to $1,000, sent to county jail for up to six months, or both.

However, petty theft can also be a wobbler offense, where the prosecutor opts to charge the crime as a felony. This is the case only if the defendant has a:

  • Prior conviction for a serious violent felony like murder or rape.

  • Prior conviction for a sex offense that triggered a sex offender registration requirement.
  • Prior larceny conviction that involved theft from an elderly person or defrauding an elderly person in violation of California's elder abuse laws. 

Criminal Charge of Larceny

The words thief and theft are most often used in informal speech rather than in the law. One neighbor may call another neighbor a thief because his competing hummingbird feeders "stole" away the birds from his backyard garden or he nabbed the open parking space in front of the apartment building.

Under California law, however, theft involves very specific factual elements. Larceny is defined in PC Section 484 as unlawfully, intentionally and permanently taking property that belongs to someone else. A prosecutor charging someone with larceny must prove certain key elements of the crime and must establish each one of them beyond a reasonable doubt or the accused person cannot be convicted of larceny.

Elements of Larceny

Generally, larceny means physically carrying off some personal property, including money, of another person. To convict someone of this crime, the prosecutor must prove that the person:

  • Took possession of property owned by someone else.

  • The taking was without permission of the owner.

  • The taker intended to deprive the owner of the property either permanently or for a period of time long enough to deprive the owner of a significant portion of the value or enjoyment of it and the person taking the property moved it from where it had been and kept it for a period of time. 

Under this California theft law, walking off with someone's bicycle or computer can be charged as larceny. So can the act of shoplifting.

Types of Larceny in California

The crime of theft looks different and has different elements depending on the type of property stolen and how it is stolen. California law includes many different types of crimes that relate to theft, some of which are variations of larceny, including:

  • Theft by false pretenses.
  • Theft by fraud or deceit.
  • Theft by embezzlement. 

These crimes are charged as theft. All of them have similar elements that a prosecutor must plead and prove in order to convict the accused. However, each also has elements specific to the particular variation of the crime.

Theft by False Pretenses: Under California theft laws, a person can commit larceny in certain circumstances even if the property is handed over to them willingly by the owner. This is known as theft by false pretenses.

To convict someone of theft by false pretenses in California, the prosecutor must prove that the accused: 1) intentionally deceived someone by 2) telling her something that wasn't true (a false pretense) in order to 3) persuade her to hand over the possession and ownership of the property and 4) the person relied on the untrue statement and handed over possession and ownership of the property.

A person can deceive someone with any of these types of behavior:

  • Saying something false knowing it to be false.
  • Saying something is true when the person has no reason to believe it to be true.
  • Failing to hand over information she is required to provide.
  • Making a promise he doesn't intend to keep. 

Special Elements of Proof: Since many business deals don't work out as one party had hoped, it is entirely possible that the unhappy party might charge the other with false pretenses when it was just a bad business decision. That's why, to charge a defendant with theft by false pretense, the prosecutor is required to make a special showing to prove the false pretense.

To establish a false pretense, the prosecutor must produce one of these:

  • A fake document, like a falsified check or a forged contract.
  • A writing signed or handwritten by the defendant outlining the false pretense.
  • Two witnesses to the false pretense.
  • One witness to the false pretense, in addition to other solid evidence of the false pretense.

This extra proof requirement is intended to guard against prosecution based on false accusations.

Theft by deceit: In California, this looks very much like theft by false pretenses, but one element is different. In theft by false pretenses, the thief convinces the person to give her both possession and ownership of the property. But with theft by deceit, the thief convinces the person to hand over only possession of the property, but she takes possession of it without any intention of returning it.

In both these types of larceny, the victim of the crime must have turned over the property because he relied on false pretenses or deceitful statements. It doesn't have to be the only reason for reliance, but it must be one of the reasons for the reliance.

Examples of Larceny by Deception and Deceit

The difference between larceny by false pretenses and larceny by deceit is easier to understand by example. Someone might be charged with larceny by false pretenses when she talks another person into signing over title to a vehicle on the promise to pay the following day, although she has no intention of paying and, instead, drives out of state with the car.

On the other hand, theft by deceit involves only transferred possession, not ownership. This could be someone taking a for-sale vehicle on a test drive when he fully intends to drive away with the vehicle and never return it or pay for it.

Theft by Embezzlement

Embezzlement is a California theft law that involves a breach of trust. It is theft by embezzlement when a person in a position of trust with another appropriates property entrusted to her and uses it for her own purposes. The required elements of this theft crime are:

  • A person is entrusted with certain property by the owner of that property.
  • The owner put the other person in a position of trust with respect to the property.
  • The person takes or uses that property fraudulently to benefit himself.
  • She intends to deprive the owner of the property, at least temporarily. 

A classic example of embezzlement is the administrator in charge of an office slush fund who "borrows" the company's money to pay his rent. It is theft by embezzlement even if the administrator intends to return the money the following week.

Larceny vs. Robbery and Burglary

In California, larceny is theft, but the law also includes other crimes that relate to theft, such as robbery and burglary. These are separate crimes.

Burglary involves theft, but doesn't need to include a theft. It is defined as “entering a structure with the intent to commit a theft once inside.” Just entering a building with the intention to steal is sufficient to be charged with burglary. If the structure is a residence, it qualifies as first-degree burglary in California and is a felony.

Robbery involves the use of force and is always charged as a felony. It is defined as "taking personal property in the possession of another, from his person or immediate presence, and against his will, accomplished by means of force or fear.”

Read More: The Differences Between Larceny, Burglary & Theft

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