California criminal law defines the crime of petty theft as an act of intentionally taking personal property belonging to another person to deprive them of its enjoyment. You can face an arrest for petty theft for actions resulting from larceny, pretense, trick, or embezzlement. Petty theft is prosecuted under California Penal Code 488, and a conviction will result in severe penalties, including jail time, fines, and misdemeanor probation.

If you or your loved one faces an arrest and charges for petty theft, hiring and retaining a competent criminal defense attorney by your side is crucial. At Koenig Law Office, we offer you the legal guidance you need to navigate the charges, build a solid defense and ensure the best outcome for the case. If you are battling petty theft charges in Bakersfield, CA, you will need us by your side.

Overview of Petty Theft in California

Under California PC 484(a), it is illegal to take property belonging to another person without their consent unlawfully. Theft is classified into petty theft and grand theft, depending on the property you took. You can face an arrest and charges for petty theft if you take property worth $950 or less without the owner’s permission. Petty theft is charged under CPC 488, and the prosecutor must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt before you are convicted:

You took Possession of Property Owned by Another Individual

Before you face a conviction for petty theft, the prosecutor must establish that you took property belonging to another person. The alleged theft victim does not need to be the property owner for you to be found guilty of the offense. The prosecution will only be required to show that the victim owned the item at the crime time. For this statute, ownership and possession could be used interchangeably.

You Took the Property without Consent from the Owner

You will only be found guilty of petty theft if it is clear that you took the property unlawfully. If you had permission from the property owner to use it for your benefit, you could not be convicted for violating PC 488.

When you took the property, you intended to deprive the owner of its use

The prosecution must prove that you intended to deprive the owner of their property either temporarily or permanently. It is essential to understand that returning the stolen property is not guaranteed that you will not face a conviction. An intention to return an item to its owner should be acted upon within a reasonable time, and the court is responsible for determining if the time was appropriate.

You Moved the Property a Distance Away from its Owner

A crime of petty theft is only considered complete if you moved the stolen item a distance away from its owner. When establishing your guilt under this statute, the prosecutor must prove that you took possession of the property and moved it. The prosecutor does not need to show that the property benefited you to secure a conviction. 

The Value of the Property in Question is $950 or less

The nature of a theft crime is determined by the value of the property involved in the crime. Petty theft involves the unlawful taking of property valued at $950 or less. To determine the correct value of a property involved in a theft case, the court will assess the highest market value that the item could fetch at the time of the crime and in the area where it occurred.

Types of Petty Theft Under California Penal Code 488

The crime of petty theft is not as simple as it sounds. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the crime, petty theft is divided into four different categories:

  1. Theft by larceny. The petty theft crime by larceny occurs when you physically take the property off another person. Most petty theft offenses occur through larceny. The property involved in a theft crime by larceny is a person and includes clothing and jewelry, electronic appliances, bicycles, and sporting gear.
  2. Theft by pretense. You commit a petty theft crime by pretense if you use deceit to convince another person to let you take possession of their property. In this case, the prosecutor must prove that the alleged victim relied on the information you provided to allow you ownership or use of the property.
  3. Theft by trick. Petty theft by larceny involves obtaining property from another person through deceit or fraud. When you acquired the property, you had an intent to deprive the owner of the property’s enjoyment for a long time. Petty theft by trick is similar to petty theft by pretense. However, the main difference between the two, the property owner turns over its ownership to the defendant in petty theft by pretense.
  4. Theft by embezzlement. Embezzlement occurs when a property owner entrusts their property to you, and you use it fraudulently without their knowledge. The prosecutor proves that you committed the crime of petty theft by embezzlement if you acted with an intent to deprive the owner of its enjoyment.

Penalties for Petty Theft

In California, petty theft is charged as a misdemeanor. A conviction for the offense attract the following penalties:

  • Jail time for up to six months
  • A fine not exceeding $1,000

Sometimes, the court could sentence you to probation instead of jail time after a conviction under this statute. If you are sentenced to probation, you will serve part of your sentence out of jail. If you face charges for stealing property worth $50 or less, your attorney can negotiate with the prosecutor to reduce your charges to an infraction.

In addition to jail time, probation, and fines, a conviction for petty theft will have negative consequences for your immigration status. In California, crimes of moral turpitude could result in deportation. Petty theft with an intent to defraud is classified as a crime of moral turpitude.

Defenses against Petty Theft Charges

The State of California treats petty theft as a serious offense. Even the slightest form of petty theft could result in severe consequences in a conviction. In addition to spending time in jail and paying hefty fines, a conviction for violation of PC 488 could cause you to lose your job, face negative immigration consequences, and have a permanent criminal record. 

Fortunately, a skilled criminal defense attorney can help you negotiate a plea bargain for a lesser charge have your sentence reduced or charges dismissed. The following are some legal defenses you can present in a petty theft case:

  • Claim of Ownership

Before you face a conviction for petty theft, the prosecution must prove that the item you took belonged to someone else. You cannot be convicted for petty theft if the property you took rightfully belonged to you. However, even when the property did not belong to you, but you mistakenly believed that you were the rightful owner, you can use the claim of right as a defense. 

When deciding whether you had a good faith belief in property ownership, the court will consider all the facts known to you when you committed the crime. Therefore, if you honestly believed that the property you are accused of stealing was yours, you can present this as a defense to your case.

  • Lack of Intent to Steal

Specific intent to steal is one of the most crucial elements of the crime that a prosecutor must establish when proving your guilt under CPC 488. If you lack the intent to commit the crime, you cannot face a conviction for the crime. The intent is a challenging element to prove. Therefore, with guidance from a knowledgeable attorney, you can build a solid defense for the case around this argument.

  • Asportation

A petty theft crime is only complete if you carry the alleged property away from its owner. The element of Asportation requires three things including:

  • The property is taken away from its rightful owner
  • The items are in complete possession of the defendant
  • The defendant moves the property away from the owner

If you took an item but did not move it away from the owner, you cannot be convicted for the crime.

  • Consent from the Owner

 You commit a petty theft crime if you take property belonging to another person without their permission. If you had the consent to convert the property for your personal use either by law or by the owner’s permission, you could neither be charged nor convicted for violating PC 488.

  • False Accusations

False accusations are not uncommon for theft crimes. Revenge, jealousy, or a relationship gone sour could be a motivation for someone to accuse you of committing petty theft falsely if you believe that you are a victim of false accusations. Your criminal defense lawyer can thoroughly investigate the facts of the case and try to show the court how you were falsely accused of something you did not do.

  • No Use of Deceit

If you face charges for petty theft by trick, you can argue that you did not use deceit or fraud to obtain the alleged property. However, it is essential to understand that obtaining consent to use the property while intending to use it differently constitutes deceit. If the property owner intended to transfer the property ownership to you, you could use this defense for your case.

  • Unlawful Search and Seizure

The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution stipulates that each individual has the right to be free from illegal search and seizures by police officers and other members of law enforcement. If the evidence of your petty theft was obtained through an unlawful search, your attorney could seek to have the evidence excluded from the case.

Offenses Related to Petty Theft

The following offenses are related to petty theft and could be charged together with or instead of PC 288:

Petty Theft with a Prior

Although many individuals view petty theft as a minor crime, there are circumstances under which the offense attracts serious legal consequences. You can be charged with petty theft with a prior if you commit a petty theft crime and have another related conviction in your record. Under California PC 666, petty theft with a primary is a wobbler. 

If the prosecutor charges you with a felony, you could face a prison sentence of up to three years after a conviction. On the other hand, a misdemeanor conviction is punishable by a one-year jail sentence. If you face charges for petty theft with a prior, it is essential to seek legal guidance.


The crime of shoplifting involves entry to a commercial establishment during business hours to commit theft by larceny. For you to be charged with shoplifting under California law, the value of the property you took must not exceed $950. If you steal property worth $950 or less from a commercial entity, you face charges for shoplifting instead of petty theft.

If there are no aggravating factors to your case, shoplifting is a misdemeanor punishable by a six-month jail sentence and a $1,000 fine.

Grand Theft

You commit a crime of grand theft if you unlawfully take property belonging to another person and the property is worth $950 or more. The offense also applies to theft of firearms, automobiles, or farm animals. If you are charged with petty theft, and the property evaluation reveals that the property value exceeded $950, you could be charged with grand theft instead.

Under CPC 487, grand theft is a wobbler. As a felony, grand theft attracts a three-year prison sentence and fines of up to $10,000. Grand theft involving firearms is a serious felony, and a conviction is punishable by up to twenty-five years in state prison. As a misdemeanor, grand theft attracts a one-year jail sentence.

Frequently Asked Questions on Petty Theft in California

The legal issues surrounding the crime of petty theft can be challenging to understand. Learning more information about the crime and the charges can help you build a defense and avoid the consequences of a conviction. The following are some frequently asked questions about the crime:

  • What is the difference between petty theft and grand theft?

Grand theft is an offense you commit when you take property belonging to another person, and the property’s value is $950 or more. Additionally, the nature and character of property taken could affect how the crime is charged. For example, if the property in question is a vehicle, farm animal, or firearm, the crime will automatically be treated as grand theft. On the other hand, Petty theft is theft of property worth $950 or less. The character of property taken does not dictate how the crime is charged. Whether you face charges for petty theft or grand theft, legal guidance is crucial.

  • How is property value determined during the prosecution of petty theft?

When you face charges for petty theft, the value of the property you took is established by determining the property’s fair market value when you allegedly committed the crime. In this case, the item’s value must reflect its highest value on the area’s market where the offense occurred. Although this could seem like a fixed amount, determining property value for criminal prosecution is challenging. A competent criminal attorney can help ensure no miscalculation of the value.

  • What is Asportation?

Asportation is a crucial element in a petty theft case, and it is considered an act of taking or carrying an item away from its owner. Proving the element of Asportation requires that the goods were taken from the owner’s possession and moved away regardless of the distance.

  • Can I be convicted for petty theft if I returned the stolen item?

Yes. You are guilty of the crime of petty theft the moment you take the item away from the owner. Your intention to hold it permanently or temporarily will not affect the conviction. Therefore, claiming that you returned the item cannot be used to avoid a conviction.

  • Does stealing multiple items result in multiple petty theft charges?

When a defendant steals several items, the question becomes whether each item stolen will result in a separate theft charge. If you steal multiple things from one victim as part of one intent plan, you will face charges for one county of petty theft. However, prosecution combines the property value, and if it exceeds $950, you will face charges for grand theft, which attracts severe penalties after a conviction.

Find a Skilled Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

Take property belonging to another person whose value is $950 or less and deprive the owner of its enjoyment. You could face an arrest and charges for petty theft under California Penal Code 488. California law treats petty theft as a serious offense, and a conviction could land you behind bars. 

Fortunately, not all arrests for petty theft result in a conviction. With the guidance of a competent criminal defense attorney from the Koenig Law Office, you can build a solid defense to fight the charges and avoid a conviction or have your penalties lessened. Our attorneys have extensive knowledge of the California criminal justice system and local courts, which will help strategize and ensure the best possible outcome for your case. We serve clients requiring legal guidance and representation in Bakersfield, CA. Call us today at 661-793-7222 to discuss the details of your case.