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Jerry Nicholson
By: Jerry Nicholson

Grand Theft vs. Petty Theft

Words matter a lot when it comes to the law. The impact of a criminal conviction can be extremely different, for example, if the charge is different by just a few words. Something like the difference between first-degree and second-degree in the charge is a critical detail when it comes to criminal defense.

The right—or wrong—verbiage on a document like an arrest warrant can be helpful to a criminal defense strategy, but the opposite is true too. The wrong information or words in testimony or court documents can weaken your defense.

All of this applies when it comes to defining theft and burglary charges, such as the difference between grand theft and petty theft.

What Is Grand Theft?

Theft occurs when someone takes another person’s property with the intention of keeping it from them permanently or depriving them of value related to it. Grand theft occurs in California when the property in question is valued at more than $950 in total.

There are some exceptions to this rule. If the theft involves farm or garden crops or domestic fowl, the threshold is much lower. It’s grand theft if the value is more than $250. The same is true for theft involving fish and other aquacultural products.

When someone steals from their employer, the value of items stolen over a 12-month period can be added up to cross the $950 grand theft threshold. The value of property taken over the course of any type of multiple theft acts can be linked and added up to cross the grand theft threshold when the acts are related by a single plan, motivation, or intention.

Any time property is taken directly from the person of the owner, it can be charged as grand theft despite its value. The same is true if the property taken is a firearm or automobile.

Types of Grand Theft

There are a variety of types of grand theft, including, but not limited to, theft by larceny, false pretense, and embezzlement. In each case, the thresholds and rules above apply.

Larceny occurs when someone takes property they don’t own without the permission of the owner. They then move the property, keeping it with the intention of never returning it or not returning it until the owner is deprived of significant value or enjoyment related to the property.

Theft by false pretense occurs when someone purposefully lies with the intention of getting someone else to let them take their property. Theft by embezzlement occurs when someone is entrusted with property and they use the property to benefit themselves or take the property from the owner.

These are all examples of grand theft of various types:

  • Nick has access to his company’s emergency expense account. His car experiences issues and he needs to pay $1,000 in repairs. He accesses the company’s emergency expense account and uses it to cover the $1,000 with the intention of repaying the amount over the next two paydays. Even though Nick intends to return what he took, this is still an example of grand theft by embezzlement.
  • Someone shoplifts a number of fashion items with a sales value of $1,200. This is an example of grand theft by larceny. This could be true even if the person took the items over several visits to a store.

What Is Petty Theft?

Petty theft is any theft of property that is worth $950 or less and doesn’t meet any of the other definitions of grand theft above.

What Are the Differences in Potential Sentencing in California?

The penalty for petty theft in California is a fine of up to $1,000, up to six months in jail, or both. Petty theft is considered a misdemeanor charge.

Grand theft may be charged as a felony or misdemeanor depending on the facts of the case and whether the person being charged has a history of criminal convictions. In cases of misdemeanor grand theft, penalties are the same as they are for petty theft. In cases of felony grand theft, penalties can include 1 to 3 years in jail, potential probation, and fines. Sentencing may also include enhancements that could add additional years or fines, depending on the facts of the case.

Common Defense Against Theft Charges

A variety of defense options exist against theft charges. You might work to show that you legitimately believed the property was yours, for example. You can also challenge the facts of the case, working to demonstrate that you could not have committed the theft in question due to where you were when it must have occurred or any other facts.

In some cases, defendants may work to show that they were not acting of their own free will. For example, if you took someone’s property because you were told to do so by someone who was threatening you or your loved ones, this is called coercion. It can be a valid defense against theft charges.

Find Out About Options for Your Defense

To understand how to defend against specific theft charges, it’s important to speak to an experienced criminal defense team. They can help you understand exactly what you’re facing and what a difference a few details might make in your case.

If you or a loved one are facing charges of theft—or any other criminal charges—reach out to the team at the Law Offices of Jerry Nicholson. Call 562-205-8499 to make an appointment.