Definition of Theft

California Penal Code § 484 states: “Every person who shall feloniously steal, take, carry, lead, or drive away the personal property of another, or who shall fraudulently appropriate property which has been entrusted to him or her, or who shall knowingly and designedly, by any false or fraudulent representation or pretense, defraud any other person of money, labor or real or personal property, or who causes or procures others to report falsely of his or her wealth or mercantile character and by thus imposing upon any person, obtains credit and thereby fraudulently gets or obtains possession of money, or property or obtains the labor or service of another, is guilty of theft.

Value of Goods Taken – Petty theft v. Grand Theft

Whether the theft is considered to be grand theft or petty most often depends on the value of the goods taken or the services received. If the value of the goods taken or the services received is greater than $950, then the crime is grand theft. If the value of the goods taken is $950 or less, then the crime is usually petty theft. “In determining the value of the property obtained … the reasonable and fair market value shall be the test….” (Pen. Code, § 484.) “[I]n determining the value of services received the contract price shall be the test. If there be no contract price, the reasonable and going wage for the service rendered shall govern.” (Ibid.)


Some thefts are always grand theft regardless of the fair market value of the item taken. For example, theft of a firearm is always grand theft. Other less common exceptions also apply. For a complete list of exceptions see California Penal Code section 487.

What the District Attorney Must Prove

According to the CALCRIM California Jury Instructions, to prove that the Defendant committed a theft, the People must prove that:

  • 1. The defendant took possession of property owned by someone else;
  • 2. The defendant took the property without the owner’s [or owner’s agent’s] consent;
  • 3. When the defendant took the property he/she intended to deprive the owner of it permanently or to remove it from the owner’s [or owner’s agent’s] possession for so extended a period of time that the owner would be deprived of a major portion of the value or enjoyment of the property; and
  • 4. The defendant moved the property, even a small distance, and kept it for any period of time, however brief.

If the People charge the defendant with grand theft, then the people also must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the theft was grand theft rather than a lesser crime.

Punishment for Theft

In California, petty theft “is punishable by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or both.” (Pen. Code, § 490.) With regard to grand theft, the California Penal Code states that: “When the grand theft involves the theft of a firearm” it is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, 2, or 3 years, and in all other cases it is punishable “by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or in the state prison.” (Pen. Code, § 489.)

Petty Theft with a Prior

Although petty theft is typically a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months or a $1,000 fine or both, if you have two prior convictions for petty theft then the third petty theft may be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. (Pen. Code, § 666.)

Defenses for Theft

If there was a reason for the defendant to believe that the owner of the property had given him/her consent to take the item(s) and/or that the defendant had a claim to the property then the defendant is not guilty of theft. Also, if the defendant can show that he/she intended to, tried to, or was going to try to return the property, then the charges would be either lessened or dismissed. There are many other legal defenses for theft, so you should call you Defense Attorney and discuss all of the facts about your case so that they can come up with the best possible defense for you.

Immigration Consequences of Theft

Because theft is a crime of moral turpitude, a theft conviction may lead to drastic immigration consequences such as deportation, denial of admission, denial of naturalization, etc. If you are charged with any theft related offense and you are not a citizen then it is even more critical that you retain an attorney knowledgeable about the immigration consequences of theft convictions that can thoroughly review your specific situation and give you competent advice and representation.