Theft in California

What is petty theft?

According to California Penal Code §488, petty theft is the crime of stealing items or money that is worth less than $400.00. A common example of petty theft is shoplifting. Depending on your criminal record and the nature of the theft, you can face a misdemeanor or felony charge for petty theft.

What is the punishment for a first petty theft offense?

If it is your first offense, you can receive a small fine of up to $400, 1 – 3 years of informal probation, and/or community service hours. In some cases, a first offense can be reduced to an infraction, as per California Penal Code §491.

What is an infraction?

An infraction is less serious than a misdemeanor, and does not go on your criminal record. The punishment for an infraction is a fine less than $250. You might receive an infraction if it is your first offense or if the value of the item is less than $50.

What is the punishment for a second or third petty theft offense?

Under California Penal Code §490, if it is your second or third offense, you can be charged with a misdemeanor or felony petty theft, which is also known as petty theft with a prior. This charge can result in anywhere from a year in county jail to 16 months in state prison, plus larger fines, and/or restitution.

What is grand theft?

According to California Penal Code §487, grand theft is a misdemeanor or felony charge that involves a person stealing money or items worth more than $400. Some examples of grand theft include auto theft, embezzlement, extortion, identify theft, and fraud. While grand theft cases can vary widely, all of these crimes involve taking something that rightfully belongs to someone else, without permission.

What is the punishment for grand theft?

Conviction for grand theft can result in county jail time, up to 16 months in state prison, probation, parole, restitution, counseling, up to $10,000 in fines, and community service. If the theft involves a firearm, the punishment can include up to three years of prison time, as per California Penal Code §489.

Who decides whether I will be charged with an infraction, a misdemeanor, or a felony for petty theft?

It is up to the prosecution to decide how to charge you for a petty theft offense. This decision typically takes into account your criminal background, the value of the item(s) in question, as well as the circumstances surrounding the crime.

What happens at my first court date?

Your first court date is called an arraignment. At your arraignment, you enter a plea to the charges; plea options include guilty, not guilty, or no contest. Your attorney can appear for you on a misdemeanor charge, but you must appear at the arraignment in person on a felony charge.

What is restitution?

Restitution is paying the victim back for the value of the items or money that you stole from him or her. Most theft punishments will require you to pay restitution to the victim.

What is probation or parole?

Probation or parole requires you to be supervised by a probation or parole officer for a certain period of time. You may be subject to certain requirements of probation or parole, such as keeping appointments with your assigned officer, paying fees, completing work or community service requirements, undergoing drug and/or alcohol screenings, and anything else that your officer might require. If you don’t comply with the requirements of your probation or parole, then you risk going back to jail or prison to serve the remainder of your sentence.

What is community service?

As part of your punishment, you can be ordered to perform a certain amount of community service, which is work that you perform for free that benefits a governmental or non-profit organization. Community service is usually set up through the court system, and in California, can include the CalTrans program, which involves freeway clean-up. 

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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