Facing Criminal Charges For Petty Theft or Grand Theft? The Sooner You Act, the Stronger
Your Defense Will Be.
Penal Coe 487 PC – Grand Theft in California
Fighting Charges of "Grand Theft" in California
Penal Code 487 PC is the California statute that defines the crime of grand theft as unlawfully taking someone else’s property when the property is valued at $950.00 or more. If the property is valued at less than $950.00, the charge can only be filed as the less serious offense of petty theft. Examples of actions that can lead to grand theft charges in California include:
Shoplifting a piece of jewelry that has a $1000 price tag,
Embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from an employer, and
Breaking into a house and stealing electronics worth several thousand dollars.
Shoplifting at a high-end store can easily invite California grand theft charges.
In most cases, the offense of grand theft in California is a wobbler. This means that the prosecutor may choose to charge you with either misdemeanor or felony grand theft. The maximum potential sentence for misdemeanor grand theft is up to one (1) year in county jail. For felony grand theft, you may be sentenced to sixteen (16) months, two (2) years, or three (3) years of incarceration.
With the help of an experienced California criminal defense attorney, you may be able to beat grand theft charges using certain common legal defenses. In a typical grand theft case, these might include asserting the position that:
You did not intend to steal,
The allegedly stolen property actually belonged to you,
The person who owned the item consented to you taking it, and/or
You were falsely accused.
What Is The Legal Definition of Grand Theft in California?
The legal definition of grand theft in California is based on certain key facts. These facts are called “Elements of the Crime.” In order for you to be guilty of California grand theft, the prosecutor must be able to prove every element of the crime. And the prosecutor must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt. There are different ways one can commit grand theft. The elements of the offense of grand theft depend on the kind of grand theft that is being charged.
Grand Theft By Larceny:
Simply put, the form of theft known as “Larceny” occurs when you physically carry off another person’s tangible property.
The legal definition of grand theft by larceny is:
1. You took possession of property owned by someone else;
2. You didn’t have permission from the owner to take the property;
3. When you took the property, you intended either
a. to deprive the owner of it permanently, or
b. to take it away from the owner of it for a period of time long enough that s/he would be deprived of a significant portion of the value or enjoyment of it; AND
You moved the property (this can be a very short distance) and kept it for a period of time (however brief).
Example: Aaron is a 17-year-old boy. His next-door neighbor Chad has just purchased a dirt bike costing several thousand dollars. Aaron is very jealous of the bike. One day when Chad is not home, Aaron enters his garage, removes the dirt bike, and takes it to his own garage, where he hides it. All along Aaron has had a vague intention to return the dirt bike to Chad eventually. But he really enjoys having the bike and takes it out regularly for secret rides. Before he knows it, six months have passed. Aaron may be charged with grand theft for taking Chad’s bike. Even though he intended to return it, he did take it without Chad’s permission . . . and ended up keeping it for a long enough time to deprive Chad of a significant portion of the enjoyment of it. It may be surprising to hear…but simple shoplifting cases can lead to charges of grand theft by larceny, if the total value of the stolen items exceeds $950.00. Several high-profile shoplifting cases involving celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Winona Ryder-in which grand theft charges were filed-have brought the concept of grand theft by shoplifting to the public’s attention.
Grand Theft by False Pretense:
The second form of grand theft is known as “Theft by False Pretenses” (California Penal Code 532 PC).
Found in Penal Code 532, the legal definition of this form of grand theft is as follows:
You knowingly and intentionally deceived somebody by telling him/her something that wasn’t true (this is known as “making a false pretense”);
You made the false pretense intending to persuade that person to let you take possession of their property; AND
The person relied on your false pretense and so let you take possession and ownership of their property.7
What is “Making a False Pretense”?
The concept of “making a false pretense” is not completely obvious and deserves some explanation.
Under California law, you commit theft by false pretenses if you:
1. intend to deceive someone else, AND
2. do one of the following things:
a. Say something that you know is false,
b. Recklessly claim something is true when you have no reason to believe it is,
c. Fail to provide information that you have an obligation to provide, OR
d. Make a promise that you don’t intend to fulfill.8
Example: Marsha is having financial difficulties and is several months’ overdue on her car payment. Her niece Tonya makes the following proposal: if Marsha signs over title to the car to Tonya, Tonya will start making the car payments for Marsha. Tonya will then let Marsha continue to use the car for the next couple of years for free.
So Marsha signs over title to her car to Tonya. Tonya continues to let Marsha use the car. But Tonya does not make any of the payments Marsha owes on her car loan as she promised. Moreover, Tonya uses the car title to take out another loan backed by the car in her own name…and spends the cash on other things. Eventually the car is repossessed. Tonya may be guilty of grand theft by false pretenses. She made Marsha a promise she didn’t intend to keep…and as a result got Marsha to sign over ownership of her car.
For you to be guilty of the crime of grand theft by false pretenses, the other person needs to have given you his property because he relied on your false pretense.
This just means that the false pretense has to be one important reason why the person turned his property over to you. It does not have to be the only reason.
Evidence required for charges of for grand theft by false pretenses
If the prosecutor charges you with grand theft by false pretense, there are certain special evidence requirements that s/he must meet. Specifically, the prosecution will need one of the following showing that you actually made a false pretense:
A false writing or “false token” (this is often some kind of fake document…like a fake check or contract),
A writing that sets out the false pretense, signed or handwritten by you,
Testimony from at least two witnesses, OR
Testimony from one witness plus some other evidence.
Why do these requirements exist only for false pretenses grand theft? The reason is that it’s very easy for someone to get involved in a business deal that involves them handing over property to someone else…then have second thoughts, and falsely accuse the other person of having used false pretenses to get the property.
California law recognizes this possibility and tries to guard against it by requiring more than just one person’s testimony for a grand theft by false pretenses conviction.
Grand Theft by Trick:
The legal definition of grand theft by trick…the third form of grand theft…is:
1. You obtained property that someone else owned (and you knew it was owned by someone else);
2. You used fraud or deceit to get the property owner to let you take possession of his/her property;
3. You took possession of the property intending to either
a. deprive the owner of it permanently, or
b. take it away from the owner of it for a period of time long enough that s/he would be deprived of a significant portion of the value or enjoyment of property;
4. You kept the property for a period of time (even a very brief period); AND
5. The property owner didn’t intend to transfer ownership of the property to you.12
Grand theft by trick is very similar to grand theft by false pretense, but there is one key difference. With grand theft by false pretense, the person whose property is taken lets the defendant have both possession and ownership of the property (this can mean, for example, formal title to the property). But with grand theft by trick, the idea is that the person lets the defendant take only possession of the property…without any intention to let him/her take ownership of it. Example: Marsha’s car needs to be repaired, but she cannot take time off from work to take it to the shop. Her niece Tonya offers to drop her off at work and take the car in for her. But Tonya has no intention of bringing the car back. Instead, she and her boyfriend drive it over the state line and leave Marsha stranded. This may be a case of grand theft by trick. Tonya tricked Marsha into giving her possession of the car…but not formal ownership of it.
Theft by Embezzlement:
You can also be charged with grand theft for committing the California Crime of Embezzlement.
Here are the elements that make up the legal definition of grand theft by embezzlement:
You were entrusted with certain property by the owner of that property;
The property owner put you in a position of trust with respect to the property;
You took or used that property fraudulently, to benefit yourself; and
You had the intent to deprive the owner of the property…either permanently or temporarily.15
So even if you intended eventually to return the property…you may still have committed grand theft by embezzlement.
Example: Sarah is the manager of a high-end jewelry store. One Friday when she is closing the store, she “borrows” several thousand dollars’ worth of jewelry to wear to a wedding she will be attending out of town that weekend. Her intention is to return the pieces the following Tuesday, when she goes back to work. Sarah would probably be surprised to learn that she may be charged with California grand theft by embezzlement under Penal Code 484 & 487 PC. Even though she intended to return the jewelry, she did intend to deprive the store of it temporarily…which is enough to support grand theft by embezzlement charges. One more note about the four types of grand theft we have just described: If the prosecutor alleges that you are guilty of California grand theft under more than one of these theories, the jury doesn’t have to agree on which one you violated. The jury must only agree that you unlawfully took the property of someone else in one of those ways.
The jury must, however, unanimously agree as to whether you committed Penal Code 487 grand theft or Penal Code 488 PC Petty Theft. If they can’t unanimously agree that you committed grand theft . . . but unanimously agree that you committed a theft . . . , you will be convicted of the lesser crime of California petty theft instead.
How Does Grand Theft Differ From Petty Theft?
The legal definition of “grand theft” under 487 PC is almost identical to that of the less serious crime of petty theft (shoplifting) under California law.19 The difference between the two lies in the value of the property that is stolen.
To be more specific, an act of theft will be considered grand theft if the property taken is worth more than nine hundred fifty dollars ($950).
This was not always the case. Prior to the passage of Proposition 47 in November of 2014, you could also be charged with grand theft for taking property worth $950 or less, if any of the following were true:
The property taken included a firearm,
The property taken included an automobile,
The property taken included certain animals (such as a horse, sheep, or pig), OR
The property was taken off the person of its owner (that is, off of his/her body or clothing or from a container held by him/her).
Grand Theft Penalties still apply to thefts of those sorts of property, regardless of its value, if the defendant has one of the following prior convictions on his/her record:
sex offense convictions that require them to register under California’s Sex Offender Registration Act, or
certain serious felony convictions (including murder, rape, sexually violent offenses, and child molestation).
Example: Paul steals a very old car that is only worth around $500. Paul is also a registered sex offender because of a prior conviction for rape. The value of the property he stole is less than $950, so ordinarily Paul would be charged with petty theft. But his prior rape conviction makes him subject to grand theft penalties for stealing any vehicle--so he will face grand theft charges. Theft of a car could be petty theft, if the car is very low value.
Finally, you can also be charged with grand theft if you repeatedly take money, labor, personal property, etc. from your employer…and the total value of the property stolen totals more than $950 during any 12-month period.
Example: Laura works at the perfume counter of a department store. Every month, she quietly takes a bottle of perfume costing around $100 without paying for it. After ten months, she is caught. She may be charged with grand theft even though the individual items she took were worth much less than $950…because, added together, their total value was around $1000.
A 487 PC conviction can lead to up to 3 years in jail.
What Are The Penalties For A Penal Code 487 PC Conviction?
California Penal Code 487 PC “grand theft” is, in most cases, a wobbler in California law. This means that the prosecutor may charge this offense as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
The decision to file charges for misdemeanor grand theft or felony grand theft is up to the prosecutor’s discretion.
S/he will usually base the decision on
the circumstances of your case, and
your criminal history.
If you are convicted of grand theft as a misdemeanor, you face up to one (1) year in a county jail.
If you are convicted of grand theft as a felony, you face:
felony probation with up to one year of county jail time, or
sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years in county jail (unless the theft was of a firearm).
Grand Theft Firearm Penalties:
If you commit grand theft of a firearm (also known as Grand Theft Firearm, the offense is always a felony. There is no misdemeanor charge option in that case. The potential sentence for grand theft firearm is sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years in California State Prison.
Also — unlike other kinds of California Grand Theft — Grand Theft Firearm is considered a “Serious” Felony Under Penal Code 1192.7(c) PC. This means that grand theft firearm is a “strike” offense under California’s Three Strikes Law.
In addition to the penalties noted above, if your grand theft charges are brought as felony charges, you can receive an additional and consecutive prison sentence if the value of the property you stole was particularly high.
The potential sentence enhancements for felony grand theft of high-value property are an additional:
One (1) year if the property was worth more than sixty-five thousand dollars ($65,000),
Two (2) years if the property was worth more than two hundred thousand dollars ($200,000),
Three (3) years if the property was worth more than one million three hundred thousand dollars ($1,300,000), and
Four (4) years if the property was worth more than three million two hundred thousand dollars ($3,200,000).30
In determining the value of property stolen for sentence enhancement purposes, courts will add together the value of all property stolen under a common scheme or plan.
Multiple Counts of Grand Theft in the Same Case:
On that note…what happens if you commit multiple acts of grand theft against the same person (often an employer)?
According to Long Beach Criminal Defense Attorney John Murray:
“If you are accused of multiple acts of theft, you may be charged with more than one count of grand theft…and receive a conviction and sentence for each count. However, this is NOT the case if the multiple grand thefts were all part of one common plan or scheme. If the incidents of theft were part of one common plan or scheme, you can only be charged with one count of grand theft.”
Example: Scott works for an import-export company in Van Nuys. He has embezzled from his employer on three occasions. On the first, he was entrusted with a large amount of cash and took $1000 of it, hoping his boss wouldn’t notice. On the second occasion, Scott accepted a large delivery of merchandise for his boss. He opened the package and kept about $1400 worth of the merchandise. He told his boss that some of the expected contents had been missing when delivered.The third occasion was identical to the second…except Scott kept $1200 worth of merchandise this time.
The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office charges Scott with three counts of California grand theft. The DA argues that each act of theft was a distinct offense. However, Scott hires a theft crimes defense lawyer who argues instead that Scott had an overall plan to steal from his employer any time he had the opportunity to do so…and that the three incidents of embezzlement were all pursuant to that plan. By doing so, he may be able to reduce Scott’s charges and overall sentence from three counts to one.
How Can A Person Fight The Charges?
Depending on the circumstances of your case, there are a variety of Legal Defenses that a California criminal defense lawyer could present on your behalf. Some of these are:
Lack of Intent:
If you didn’t have the intent to steal, you can’t be convicted of grand theft -- period!34
This means that if your California grand theft attorney can convince the prosecutor, judge, and/or jury that you simply made a mistake or were being absent-minded, then you can’t be convicted of grand theft.
For example, while browsing in an upscale store, you may have accidentally left the store carrying an item of clothing worth more than $950.
Or, while making a delivery for an employer, you may have absent-mindedly driven home with more than $950 of merchandise still in your car. Under scenarios like these, you can argue that you should be acquitted of grand theft based on a lack of intent.
Claim of Right:
If you obtained the property under a claim of right -- that is, if you had an honest and reasonable belief that it actually belonged to you -- then you can’t be convicted of grand theft. Not only that…but this “claim of right” defense applies as long as you had a good faith belief that the property belonged to you . . . regardless of whether that belief was correct. However, this defense will not apply if you attempted to conceal the taking at the time it occurred or after it was discovered. You will also be barred from asserting this as a defense if the property was something you owned illegally (illicit drugs, for example).
If the owner of the property consented to you taking it…you are not guilty of the offense of grand theft.
That said, there is a caveat: your use of the property must fall within the scope of that consent. That means that if you obtained consent to use the property in a specific way or for a specific purpose…but used it in a different way or for a different purpose…you may not be able to rely on this legal defense. False accusations
Countless people are falsely accused-framed-and wrongly arrested for California embezzlement and other grand theft offenses. Oftentimes, a business deal gone sour can lead to false accusations of grand theft by false pretenses or embezzlement. Therefore, this is a common and helpful potential legal defense.
Penal Code 487 PC Grand Theft and Related Offenses
There are a number of similar and/or related California offenses that may be charged along with-or instead of-Penal Code 487 PC grand theft. Some of these are:
Penal Code 484 & 488 PC Petty Theft:
As we discussed above, Penal Code 488 PC petty theft has an almost identical legal definition to Penal Code 487 PC grand theft. The difference is that petty theft will be charged when the property stolen is worth $950 or less.
It could be that the value of the property you stole is in dispute. For example, if you stole antiques from someone’s home, and those items had not been purchased or appraised for years, you may be able to argue that you should be convicted of petty theft — not grand theft — because the value of the items was $950 or less.
And even if the jury is convinced you committed theft — but is not convinced the value of the items exceeded $950 --they may convict you of petty theft instead of grand theft.
California Petty Theft is a misdemeanor offense. The potential penalties are a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000), up to six (6) months in county jail, or both.
Penal Code 666 PC Petty Theft with a Prior:
However, for defendants who have prior theft crime convictions on their record, the penalties for a petty theft conviction can be significantly steeper.
Under California’s “petty theft with a prior law,” Penal Code 666 PC, if you have
a single theft crime conviction AND a prior conviction for a serious violent felony like murder or rape or for a sex offense that leads to a sex offender registration requirement, OR
a prior theft crime conviction for theft from or fraud from an elderly person in violation of California’s elder abuse laws, and you are then convicted of petty theft . . . the offense may become a wobbler and lead to felony penalties.
Grand Theft Auto is Grand Theft When The Property Stolen Is An Automobile.
Grand Theft Auto:
You may have heard of the California crimes of grand theft auto. It is — like grand theft firearm — simply a variant of the broader crime of grand theft. It may, however, carry a different penalty. California Grand Theft Auto under Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC is another name for the offense of grand theft when the property stolen is an automobile. (The less serious crime of “joyriding” under Vehicle Code 10851 VC is also sometimes referred to as “grand theft auto.”) Grand theft auto is usually charged as a felony. Contrary to what you might think in light of the popular Grand Theft Auto video game franchise, vehicle theft is on the decline. According to the LAPD, reported vehicle thefts in Los Angeles declined to 180 in 2011 from 22,623 in 2008 and 31,709 in 2001.
Penal Code 459 PC Burglary, Auto Burglary and Burglary With Explosives:
Penal Code 459 PC California burglary is defined as entering a building or other enclosure with the intent to commit a felony or petty theft once inside. California Auto Burglary is basically just a subset of this…except that it involves entering a car, instead of a building, intending to commit a felony or theft.
So if you commit grand theft by larceny — and you entered a house, building, or car to do so — you may face charges for both Penal Code 459 PC burglary (or auto burglary) and grand theft. Even if you don’t succeed in carrying out the theft, you may still be charged with burglary (and attempted grand theft) just for the act of entering the structure with the intent to commit a theft inside of the structure.
Burglary is a felony, carrying a county jail sentence of up to (3) years. But the penalty can be up to six (6) years if it is committed in an inhabited house or trailer (that is, where someone is currently living).
The penalties for burglary are increased if, after committing a burglary, you open or attempt to open a safe, vault, or other secure space with a torch or explosives. In that case, you may be charged under PC 464 California’s Burglary With Explosives Law, which provides for a maximum jail sentence of seven (7) years.
Penal Code 211 PC Robbery:
Penal Code 211 PC Robbery occurs when someone takes personal property from someone else against his/her will, using "force or fear."
So it is very possible to face charges for both California robbery and Penal Code 487 PC grand theft if, for example, you use force or fear to take property worth more than $950 from someone. A mugging at which a laptop computer and a wallet full of cash were stolen could trigger both charges. Robbery is always a felony. It carries a California state prison term of two (2) to six (6) years. Robbery is also a strike offense under California’s Three Strikes Law.46 For this reason, if you are charged with robbery, it may make sense to try to argue to reduce your charges down to grand theft…which is not a strike offense in most cases.
The California Crime of Forgery (Penal Code 470 PC) takes place when you knowingly do any of the following, intending to commit fraud:
Sign someone else’s name without their authorization,
Fake a seal or someone else’s handwriting,
Change or falsify any legal document (like a will or a deed), or
Fake, alter, or present as genuine a false document pertaining to money, finances, or property (like a check or a promissory note).
See Also Our Page On Embezzlement
If you are accused of grand theft by false pretenses, trick, or embezzlement…there is a chance that the charges will also involve allegations that you committed forgery. For example, you may be accused of committing grand theft by embezzlement for forging your boss’s signature on a $1,000 check. Forgery is a wobbler. The maximum jail sentence for misdemeanor forgery is one (1) year…and for felony forgery, it’s three (3) years.
See Also Our Page On Embezzlement
The exception is a forgery of a check, money order, etc. totaling $950 or less. For defendants without certain sex crime or violent felony offenses on their record, this type of forgery is always a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than one (1) year in county jail.
Penal Code 424 PC Misappropriation of Public Funds:
Penal Code 424 PC misappropriation of public funds occurs when someone with control over public funds appropriates those funds or lends them out without authority to do so. This offense is usually charged against government employees but can be charged against anyone who has authority over government money (for example, administrators at nonprofits that spend public funds). Misappropriation of public funds is very similar to the crime of grand theft by embezzlement. But misappropriation of public funds carries harsher penalties. PC 424 is always a felony and carries a potential state prison sentence of two (2), three (3) or four (4) years.51
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