Theft in California occurs when you take another person’s property by larceny, fraud, embezzlement, or deception with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of his or her property. The value of the stolen property and the circumstances of the offense will determine the specific law under which the prosecutor will charge you.

We at Michele Ferroni Pasadena Criminal Attorney Law Firm can help you or your loved one fight any theft charges you are facing by developing a defense strategy based on the circumstances and the legal provisions.

Here are the common theft crimes in California:

Petty Theft

California Penal Code 484 PC defines petty theft as the crime of wrongfully taking another person's property when the property's value is $950 or less. Petty theft can include several theft forms, including theft by false pretenses, trick, larceny, or embezzlement.

Theft by larceny occurs when you take and carry away another person’s property, usually personal property such as jewelry, clothing, sporting gear, and equipment and furniture.

Theft by embezzlement occurs when:

  • You fraudulently took the property of another person
  • The owner had entrusted that property to you based on the trust he or she had
  • You used that property for your benefit
  • When you took the property, you intended to deprive the owner of its use

Theft by fraud or false pretenses occurs when you knowingly or intentionally deceive the property owner through false pretense, thus persuading the owner to allow you to take possession of his or her property. In theft by fraud or false pretenses, the owner must let you possess the property by relying on the false pretense.

False pretense includes the intent to deceive another person by giving false information, recklessly saying something is true without the supporting evidence, failing to provide information when you have an obligation, or making a promise, which you do not intend to fulfill.

You are guilty of petty theft by trick if you:

  • Obtained another person’s property
  • The property owner let you take their property because you used fraud or deceit,
  • You intended to deprive the owner of their property permanently or for long enough that the victim would miss a significant part of the property,
  • The property owner did not intend to transfer the ownership of their property to the accused.

Some of the elements the prosecution must prove to convict you for petty theft include:

  • You took possession of another person’s property without that person’s consent,
  • You intended to deprive the owner of that property, and
  • You moved the property (regardless of the distance), and you kept the stolen property for some time, no matter how brief.

When convicting you of petty theft, the court might consider ownership and possession as the same thing. Therefore, if John had Mage’s car in his possession, and you took it from John’s possession, you would still be guilty of stealing from John.

The prosecution must also prove that you intended to deprive the victim of the main value of their property. In addition to proving your intent to deprive the victim of their property, the prosecution must prove that you moved the property. The prosecution will prove this by showing that you took complete possession of the stolen property and moved it, however slightly.

Petty theft is charged as a misdemeanor in California. The penalties include up to six months in county jail or misdemeanor probation and up to $1000 in fines.

Petty theft might have immigration consequences, especially if the offense involved fraud or false pretenses. However, the immigration consequences vary on a case-by-case basis.

Grand Theft

California Penal Code 487 PC defines grand theft as the crime of unlawfully taking another person’s property when the property's value is $950 or more. Like petty theft, grand theft can be in one of four forms, including grand theft by larceny, false pretense, trick, or embezzlement.

You can be charged with grand theft under the following circumstances:

  • You stole property worth $950 or more
  • You have a prior conviction for a sex offense that requires registration as a sexual offender or a conviction for certain felonies, and:
  • You stole a firearm
  • You stole an automobile
  • You stole certain animals such as pigs, horses, or sheep
  • You stole the property off the person of the owner

Grand theft is a wobbler in California based on the circumstances and your criminal history. Misdemeanor grand theft includes incarceration in county jail for up to one year or misdemeanor probation.

Felony grand theft includes felony probation with up to one year in county jail or incarceration in county jail for sixteen months, two or three years.

Grand theft of a firearm is a felony with a potential sentence of sixteen months, two, or three years in state prison. Grand theft firearm is considered a serious felony, which counts as a strike on your record.

Felony grand theft could also attract different sentence enhancements as follows:

  • An additional and consecutive one-year sentence if the property was worth more than $65,000
  • An additional and consecutive two-year sentence for property worth more than $200,000
  • An additional and consecutive three-year sentence for property worth more than $1.3 million
  • An additional and consecutive four-year sentence for property worth more than $3.2 million

Grand Theft Auto

California Penal Code 487 (d) (1) defines grand theft auto as the crime of stealing someone’s vehicle without his or her permission and with the intent to deprive the owner of that vehicle. Some of the elements of the offense include:

  • You took a car someone else owns,
  • The car was worth more than $950,
  • The owner did not permit you to take the vehicle,
  • When taking the car, you intended to deprive the owner of it permanently or for long enough that y would deprive the owner of a significant portion of its value or enjoyment of the car,
  • You moved the car and kept it for some time.

You can commit grand theft auto through larceny, false pretenses, trick, or embezzlement. Grand theft auto is closely related to joy riding or unlawfully taking of a vehicle. Joyriding is a different offense, which involves taking someone else’s vehicle without their permission to deprive the owner of their car for any period.

Unlike grand theft auto, you are not guilty of joyriding if you had the owner's permission to use their car, even if you obtained consent through fraud, trick, or false pretenses.

Grand theft is a wobbler in California. The penalties for misdemeanor include summary probation or a maximum of six months in county jail and a fine of up to $1000.

Usually, courts treat grand theft auto as a felony with penalties such as up to three years in jail and up to $10,000 in fines. Felony grand theft could also include sentence enhancements depending on the value of the stolen car.

  • For cars worth more than $65,000, you will get an additional and consecutive one-year sentence.
  • An additional and consecutive two years for cars worth more than $200,000


California Penal Code 459 defines burglary as the crime of entering a residential or commercial structure or a locked vehicle intending to commit theft or any felony. Some of the elements of burglary include:

  • You entered a building, a room within a building, or a locked structure or vehicle,
  • You intended to commit a felony or theft inside the building, structure, or vehicle,
  • And one or more of the following is true:
    • You stole or intended to steal property worth more than $950,
    • The structure you entered was not a commercial establishment, or
    • The structure you entered was a commercial establishment, but you entered it after business hours

In California, you could be charged for first- or second-degree burglary. First-degree burglary is any burglary of a residence, while burglary of a commercial establishment is second-degree burglary. The law defines a residence as:

  • An occupied house
  • A room within an inhabited house
  • An inhabited boat
  • An inhabited floating home
  • An inhabited area of any other kind of building
  • An inhabited motel or hotel room

Entering a structure or building means that a part of your body or an object under your control penetrates the area inside that structure’s outer boundary.

The penalties of burglary will depend on whether the prosecution is charging you with first-or second-degree burglary. First-degree burglary is always a California felony. The penalties include formal probation, incarceration in state prison for two, four, or six years in state prison, and a fine of up to $10,000. The first-degree burglary counts as a strike on your criminal record.

Second-degree burglary or burglary of a commercial building is a California wobbler. The penalties for a misdemeanor charge include misdemeanor probation, up to a year in county jail, and up to $1000 in fines. For a felony charge, the penalties include formal probation, a county jail sentence of 16 months, two or three years, and up to $10,000 in fines.

In some cases, the prosecution can reduce a burglary charge to shoplifting under Prop 47. Proposition 47 reduced the penalties for some minor crimes in California. Therefore, if you are facing charges for second-degree burglary, the prosecution could reduce your charges to shoplifting.

Other than commercial or residential burglary, the prosecution could charge you with auto burglary or breaking into a locked vehicle. The elements of auto burglary include:

  • You entered a locked vehicle
  • You intended to commit a felony or theft while inside the vehicle

Some of the actions that constitute entering a locked vehicle include:

  • smashing the window of a locked car to gain access
  • reaching through an open window for something without the owner's consent
  • using a screwdriver or another instrument to open a locked car trunk. You are also guilty of auto burglary even if you do not physically enter the vehicle. For example, if you use an instrument to pull out something from the car, you are still guilty of auto burglary.

Another element of auto burglary requires you to have the intent to commit a felony or theft. This would include the intention to commit the following offenses:

  • Theft of the car you are breaking into
  • Stealing something inside the car worth $950 or more
  • Kidnapping someone left inside the locked car

Auto burglary is often charged as second-degree burglary. The offense is thus a wobbler offense whose misdemeanor conviction includes up to a year in county jail. If convicted for a felony, you face up to three years in county jail.

Auto burglary might be charged as a felony if you break into an inhabited trailer coach. The penalties, in this case, include two, four, or six years in state prison.


California Penal code 211 defines robbery as the crime of taking another person’s property from their immediate presence against their will. Some of the elements of robbery include:

  • You took another person’s property,
  • The property was in another person’s possession,
  • You took the property from that person’s immediate presence,
  • You took the property against that person’s will,
  • You used fear or force to take that property or prevent resistance from the other person, and
  • You intended to deprive the owner of their property permanently or for long enough to deprive them of the use or enjoyment of that property

Robbery in California can be a first- or second-degree offense, depending on the circumstances. First-degree robbery includes the following:

  • The victim is a passenger or driver in transportation for hire, including a taxi, cable car, trackless trolley, or subway
  • The robbery occurs in an occupied house, boat, or trailer
  • The robbery occurs immediately after the victim uses an ATM

The penalties for first-degree robbery include:

  • Formal probation
  • Three, four, or six years in state prison
  • A fine of up to $10,000

The sentence could increase to three, six, or nine years in state prison if you commit first-degree robbery of a structure inhabited with the help of two or more people.

Second-degree robbery is a felony punishable by two, three, or five years in state prison or felony probation and a maximum of $10,000 in fines.

Note that the prosecution could convict you for multiple counts of robbery based on the number of victims. Therefore, if you apply force to two people to steal from one of them, you are guilty of two counts of robbery. The court might also apply sentence enhancements depending on the circumstances. Some of these enhancements include:

  • An additional three to six years for causing substantial physical injury to a person while committing the offense
  • When you use a gun in the commission of a robbery, you are subject to sentence enhancements as follows:
    • Ten additional years for using a firearm during a robbery
    • Twenty additional years for personally and intentionally firing a firearm during a robbery
    • Twenty-five years to life for causing great bodily injury or death while using a firearm in the commission of a robbery

Robbery is a violent offense in California and therefore counts as a strike on your record. A third strike will result in a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.


Carjacking under PC 215 is the crime of forcefully taking a vehicle from another person. Carjacking includes the following elements that the prosecution must prove before you are convicted:

  • Another person possessed a car
  • You took that car from their possession or immediate presence
  • Against that person’s will and using force or fear
  • You intended to deprive that person of the car temporarily or permanently

The immediate presence or possession of another person means that the vehicle is under the driver's control, control, or observation. Taking a vehicle against the victim's will means that you do not have permission to take that car. Taking the car means that you take its possession (control of the vehicle) and move it (even over a slight distance.

Fear for a carjacking conviction means that you use threats against that person, their family, or property to compel the victim into giving you the car. The prosecution has to prove that you used enough fear to cause the victim to give up the vehicle.

Carjacking is a felony in California with penalties such as:

  • Probation and a maximum sentence of one year in county jail, or
  • Three, five, or nine years in state prison and $10,000 in fines

Sentencing enhancements also apply as follows:

  • And additional and consecutive three to six years in prison for causing great bodily injury while committing the offense
  • An additional and consecutive 15 years to life if the carjacking was related to criminal gang activity
  • An additional 10, 20, or 25 years to life for using a gun while carjacking
  • If a person dies during the commission of carjacking either as a direct or related occurrence, you will be charged with first-degree murder

Carjacking is a strike offense meaning that you get stiffer penalties for future felony convictions. You must also complete at least 85% of your sentence before you are eligible for patrol. Carjacking is also an aggravated felony that could lead to adverse immigration consequences.

Fighting Theft Crimes Charges

Theft crime charges differ depending on the circumstances and severity of the offense. Regardless, work with an attorney who understands California theft crime laws. The attorney will help you develop a solid defense with results such as dismissed charges, reduced charges, acquittal at trial, or reduced or alternative sentencing.

Some of the general defenses for theft crimes include:

1. Lack of Intent

For most theft crimes, you must have had the intent to take another person’s property and deprive the owner of that property or its enjoyment. In most cases, the prosecution must prove that you intended to commit a theft crime for you to be prosecuted. However, if you had no intention to commit the offense, you are not guilty.

Lack of intent as a defense applied differently depending on the offense. For example, you are guilty of burglary if you entered a residential or commercial building intending to steal. However, if you entered the building without the intention to steal, but you decide to steal once inside, the prosecution will consider other offenses such as shoplifting or grand theft.

2. Claim of right

You are not guilty of theft if you actually believed that the stolen property belonged to you, even if this belief is mistaken or unreasonable. This defense is applicable for offenses such as petty theft, grand theft, grand theft auto, burglary. However, you cannot use the 'claim of right' defense to fight carjacking charges.

3. Insufficient Evidence

The law requires that the prosecution proves beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the offense for which you are charged. Therefore, if the prosecution cannot present sufficient evidence that you committed the offense, you cannot be charged with a theft offense.

In such cases, the prosecution might charge you with a lesser offense, for example, shoplifting instead of burglary, or dismiss the case altogether.

4. Mistaken Identity

In theft offenses where you are not caught in the act, the police will rely on victim line-ups to identify the potential suspect. These offenses also involve offenders dressed in disguises, meaning that identifying the offender depends on factors such as weight, height, or hair color and other circumstantial evidence. An experienced lawyer can challenge unreliable evidence to convince the jury that they lack sufficient evidence of the offender’s identity.

5. Consent

Most theft crimes arise because you took another person’s property without their consent. If you are facing theft charges, you could assert that the accuser gave consent to take their property. The consent to take someone’s property means that the accuser was aware that you would be taking his or her property.

Therefore, if you used force, trickery, fear, violence, or false pretenses to acquire consent, you would still be guilty. You must also return the property at the agreed time, or you could still be guilty of certain theft offenses.

Find a Theft Crimes Defense Attorney Near Me

Never fight theft crime charges alone. Hiring an attorney should be one of the first things you do as soon as you are arrested for a California theft crime. Michele Ferroni Pasadena Criminal Attorney Law Firm helps you fight any theft charges you are fighting in California. Our attorneys work as a team in developing a defense strategy that we use during the criminal process. Call us at 626-628-0564 to book a free non-obligatory consultation.