Stealing is no small crime. Whether it’s taking a piece of gum from the store or money from a bank, stealing is deeply wrong and illegal.
But the law distinguishes between two basic types of theft: grand theft and petty theft.
Grand theft usually refers to stealing items that are over $1,000 in value, while petty theft usually refers to stealing smaller items that are worth less than $1,000. But the exact definitions will vary by state.
In this article, we’ll explain what all counts as petty theft, the consequences of it, and what you can do if charged with petty theft.
What is petty theft?
Petty theft (aka larceny) is taking property that belongs to another person without their consent. Most of the time, it’s considered a misdemeanor, but it could be considered a felony if you are a repeat offender.
Petty theft also implies that at the time of the crime, the suspect was on the premises lawfully. Otherwise, it would be considered a burglary, which means you not only stole but you trespassed somebody’s property to do it.
Petty theft also requires that there was no firearm involved. If you steal a gun or use one in a robbery, it’s automatically considered a felony because of the higher threat (and usually violence) involved.
That said, here are some examples of petty theft
- Not paying your bill at a restaurant
- Watching a movie at a theater without paying for a ticket
- Billing your employer for hours you didn’t work
And the list goes on … Whenever you take something without permission or without paying for it, you can be sure it’s punishable by law.
What are the consequences of petty theft?
The consequences for committing petty theft vary a lot by the nature of the crime, the state where it happened, your criminal record, and whether you are a juvenile.
But generally, a petty theft charge goes as follows:
First, you’ll have an arraignment hearing, where you get to formally hear the charges placed against you, plead guilty or not guilty, and receive a bail amount from the judge.
Later at the actual hearing, the judge will determine whether you are guilty or innocent based on the evidence and then give an appropriate sentence.
As a first-time offender, your sentence will probably be one of the following:
- Diversion program
- Community service
- A fine
All of these punishments are relatively minor
However, if you’re a repeat offender, you could get jail time. Usually, jail sentences are for 6 to 12 months. But beware of some states like Washington and Virginia that have Three Strikes laws. They’ll often require a mandatory prison sentence of 25+ years if you commit the crime for a third time.
Whatever the sentence, all petty theft crimes also go on your record. This can impact your future ability to get employment, schooling, loans, and housing. So even if the sentence isn’t severe, the long-term consequences could be.
What can you do if charged with petty theft?
If charged with petty theft, the first thing you should do is consult an experienced criminal defense attorney. They’ll usually offer consultations for free and take on your case for a flat fee. If you can’t afford a lawyer, you can get a public defender.
There are many ways to nullify or improve the outcome of a petty theft charge. Consider if any of the following apply to your case:
- You were wrongfully identified as the suspect.
- You mistakenly thought you owned the property stolen.
- You intended only to borrow the property.
- An illegal search without a warrant was used to produce evidence used in court.
- Coercion or duress was used to get you to commit the crime.
If any of the above situations apply, bring it to the court’s attention with the help of your lawyer. It will significantly improve your case.
Once the case is over, you may still have a misdemeanor on your hands. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get it cleared (aka expunged) from your record later on. To do so, ask your lawyer to help you file a motion or petition with the court. If the court grants your request, it could dramatically improve your future opportunities.
Adding it all up
In most cases, petty theft is a minor offense. You should avoid it, but it’s not the end of the world. The key to navigating a petty theft charge successfully is to get the help of a good lawyer who will help you know your rights. If you do that, you can be confident you’ll get the best possible outcome.