Criminal theft charges come in dozens of varieties, including petty theft, petty theft with priors, embezzlement, fraud, robbery, etc. The most basic and probably the most common theft charge is found at California penal code 484 & 487.

The primary difference is the value of the property taken. Grand theft, under California Penal Code Section 487(a), is defined as the illegal or unlawful taking of another person’s property, which is valued in excess of $950, while petty theft, PC 484, is anything of value of $950 or less.

Generally, in order to prove that the defendant is guilty of the crime of theft the prosecutor will have to prove all of the following:

  1. The defendant took another person’s property without permission,

  2. The defendant destroyed the property or intended to keep it without returning it, and

  3. The defendant had no legal justification for taking the property.


Petty theft is a misdemeanor, typically punished by up to 3 years of informal probation, a maximum sentence of 6 months in county jail, a $1000 fine, or both. In some instances, such as when the value of the stolen property is small and the defendant has no criminal history, petty theft may be charged as an infraction and dismissed if the defendant completes theft education classes.

However, if the property has a value of $50 or less, the prosecutor can charge the offense as an infraction, so long as the offender has had no other theft-related conviction. Petty theft charged as an infraction is punishable by a fine of no more than $250.


Grand theft is a “wobbler,” meaning that it can be charged as a misdemeanor or as a felony. Misdemeanor grand theft carries a basic punishment of up to 1 year in jail, a $1000 fine, or both. Felony grand theft can be punished by 16 months, 2 or 3 years in state prison.


In addition to any jail or prison sentence, if the defendant is found guilty of PC 484 he may face professional license restrictions or suspensions, harsh probation terms, restitution requirements, loss of immigration status (for non-U.S. citizens), and more.


Theft charges are often based on weak evidence that must be vigorous challenged. Depending on the facts of a case, defenses to theft charges may include:

  • Lack of intent – when the defendant took the property he did not intend to permanently keep it,

  • Right of possession – theft is not committed if the allegedly stolen goods belong to the defendant and the defendant has a right to possess them,

  • Consent – defendant had consent to take the allegedly stolen property, and

  • Mistake – If the property was taken by mistake or error

  • False theft allegations.


There are a number of potential defenses to theft charges in California, particularly where the situation involves shoplifting or petty theft. These allegations have lasting and harsh ramifications on an individual. It is crucial that you fight this type of allegation because this could be held against you for many years. If you or a loved one is under investigation or charged with a crime, it is important to contact a criminal attorney that is competent in handling these matters. Call the Law Office of Brett Parker Davison for a free consultation today!


  • Petty Theft (PC 484 and 488): This is the stealing of property valued up to $950. This offense is a misdemeanor, but a second offense can be charged as a felony under Penal Code 666.

  • Grand Theft (PC 487): This is the stealing of property valued at more than $950. It may be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony.

  • Grand Theft of a Firearm: Any theft of a firearm counts as “grand theft”, regardless of the value of the gun. However, this offense is only a felony if the firearm is more than $950 in value.

  • Grand Theft Auto: Theft of an automobile as “grand theft” if the value of more that $950, and “petty theft” if the value is $950.00 or less.

  • Burglary: Entering a structure with the intent to commit a felony or theft inside constitutes burglary in California. However, if the structure is a home or “inhabited dwelling,” residential burglary may be charged, which counts as a “strike” under the Three Strikes Laws.

  • Auto Burglary: Breaking into a locked vehicle for the purpose of stealing it, is “auto burglary” in California.

  • Shoplifting (PC 459.5): Entering a commercial establishment while it is open with the intent to commit petty theft inside is the crime of shoplifting.

  • Embezzlement: A person who wrongfully steals or misappropriates property entrusted to him by the rightful owner.

  • Receiving Stolen Property: When someone purchases or receives property that they knows or reasonably should know is stolen.

  • Robbery: Use of violence, force or threats to take property from another’s immediate possession. This is a Strike under the Three Strike Laws.

  • Carjacking: If one uses force or fear to take a vehicle from someone’s immediate possession.

  • Mail Theft (530.5(e)): When someone knowingly takes mail that does not belong to them from a mailbox, post office or letter carrier.