A Guide to California’s Theft And Larceny Laws

  • Post last modified:July 9, 2024

This article was updated; Feb. 10th, 2023

The ancient wisdom says thou shalt not steal, and that seems simple and straightforward enough. But under California law in the 21st century, stealing can include theft, robbery, burglary, carjacking, embezzlement, fraud of several kinds, and even identity theft.

How are these crimes distinct from one another? If you’re falsely accused of stealing in California, where can you turn? You’re about to learn those answers and more.

Image of prison cell, for article on California's theft and larceny laws.

Robbery, burglary, and theft refer to three somewhat different crimes in California, and a conviction for any of these crimes could land someone behind bars.

If you or someone you love is arrested and charged with robbery, burglary, or theft in Southern California – now or in the future – arrange immediately to speak with a skilled Long Beach criminal defense attorney.

Theft, which is also called larceny in California, is classified as petty larceny or as grand larceny depending on the value and the nature of the stolen property.

Shoplifting is considered theft in California. The charge is grand larceny if someone steals property valued at more than $950, an automobile, a firearm, an animal, or certain food or agricultural items valued at more than $250.


A grand larceny or grand theft conviction can land someone behind bars for three years if the crime is charged as a felony and for one year if it’s charged as a misdemeanor.

The charge is petty larceny if someone steals property valued at less than $950, unless the property is an automobile, a firearm, an animal, or certain food or agricultural products.

Petty larceny or petty theft is a misdemeanor in this state, but a petty larceny conviction can still land someone in jail for up to six months, and convicted offenders may also be fined up to $1,000.

For thefts of property worth less than $50, a prosecutor may charge the crime as an infraction rather than as a misdemeanor. For either larceny charge, if a defendant has prior theft convictions, he or she may expect no leniency from the court.

Lacerny Law In California

Someone may be also charged with larceny in California for the failure to return rented, leased, or borrowed property like a rental car or even items from a public library.

Larceny is theft, but robbery and burglary are crimes that add an additional element to a theft. Generally speaking, robbers use force to steal, and burglars sneak in or break in to steal.


California defines burglary as “entering a structure with the intent to commit a theft once inside.” Simply entering a structure with an intention to steal is enough to convict a defendant of burglary.

“Breaking” and entering – or actually committing a theft – is not required for someone to be convicted of burglary.

In California, the first-degree burglary is residential burglary. Second-degree burglary is the burglary of any non-residential structure and is sometimes called “commercial” burglary.

First-degree burglary is a felony in California. Convicted offenders can serve up to six years in prison and be fined up to $10,000.

Two Types Of Burglary

At a prosecutor’s discretion, a second-degree burglary may be charged either as a felony or as a misdemeanor. Prosecutors consider the details of the allegation and the defendant’s criminal record when making that decision.

A felony second-degree burglary conviction can put an offender in prison for up to three years, while a conviction on the misdemeanor charge can put the offender in a county jail for up to a year.


Because robbery involves the use or threat of force – and puts public safety at risk – robbery is always charged as a felony in California.

Here’s how state law defines robbery: “Robbery is the felonious taking of personal property in the possession of another, from his person or immediate presence, and against his will, accomplished by means of force or fear.”

First-degree robbery is:

– a robbery committed in an inhabited structure
– a robbery of a person who has just used an ATM and is still at or near the ATM
– a robbery of a driver or a passenger on a bus, subway, taxi, cable car, streetcar, or other public transportation

A conviction on a first-degree robbery charge can send an offender to a California state prison for as long as nine years.

All other robberies in this state – with the exception of carjackings – are considered second-degree robberies; a conviction for second-degree robbery can send the offender to a state prison for up to five years.

If someone steals a parked vehicle from a street, garage, or driveway, it’s grand larceny. But if someone steals a car directly from its owner or driver by using intimidation or force, it’s carjacking.

Carjacking may be prosecuted under California’s specific carjacking statute, and a conviction for carjacking in this state is punishable by up to nine years in prison.


The possession of stolen property may be prosecuted in California as either a misdemeanor or as a felony.

A conviction on the felony charge can put an offender behind bars for up to three years, and he or she can be fined up to $10,000.

A conviction on the misdemeanor charge can send the offender to jail for up to a year, and he or she can be fined up to $1,000.

Could you be wrongly accused of one of these crimes? It happens all the time in California. You might have legitimately believed that the allegedly “stolen” property was actually yours.

You could be misidentified as a thief or as a shoplifter by a mistaken eyewitness. And sometimes, a robbery, burglary, or theft charge is entirely fabricated.

Need A Criminal Defense Lawyer

But before anyone can be convicted of a crime in this state, a prosecutor must prove that a person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

If you are charged with any crime in California, never try to act as your own legal counsel. Instead, reach out to a criminal defense attorney you can trust.

The law is too complicated, and your future, your family, and your freedom are too important to put at risk.

If you are charged with theft, burglary, robbery, or the possession of stolen property in southern California, you’ll need to have an experienced Long Beach criminal defense fighting vigorously for justice on your behalf.