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Theft Crimes

Theft Crimes

In California, theft-related crimes are punished under a wide variety of penal statutes.  These statutes not only punish slightly different conduct but also call for vastly different punishments.  Below are some of the most commonly seen theft crimes in Orange County:

  • Penal Code section 484 – petty theft
  • Penal Code section 487 – grand theft
  • Penal Code section 496 – receiving stolen property
  • Penal Code section 459 – Burglary
  • Penal Code section 459.5 – commercial burglary
  • Penal Code section 460 – residential burglary
  • Penal Code section 211 – robbery

In the next few sections, we will discuss the various crimes, the requirements to reach a conviction, and other issues relating to theft crimes.

Penal Code section 484 – Petty Theft

Under Penal Code section 484, it is unlawful for anyone to: take the property of another with the specific intent to deprive the owner of said property.  In California, petty theft is punished as a misdemeanor.


It may sound simple, but the first question we must ask is “what constitutes a taking?”  Thankfully, the answer is fairly straightforward here in California.  Under California law, a taking occurred if the property moved.  This movement does not need to be significant or even lasting.  Even a slight and temporary movement is sufficient to satisfy the “taking” requirement.

“Specific intent to deprive”

The next question we must ask is “what constitutes a specific intent to deprive?”  First, let’s examine the word “deprive.”  In California, deprivation can come in 2 forms: 1) a permanent deprivation, or 2) a deprivation over a period of time so that the owner misses a significant portion of the value or enjoyment of the property.

For example: it would clearly be a deprivation if Donald takes Victor’s bicycle and sells it.  Similarly, it would also be a deprivation if Donald takes the same bicycle and hides it for six months (because Victor would be deprived of the bicycle’s value or the enjoyment of the bicycle).  However, it would not be a deprivation if Donald merely takes the bicycle for a few hours as a prank.  This leads to the second prong of this element: specific intent.

Specific intent means that while the defendant is taking the property, he/she intended the action to have a certain purpose.  Here, the intent must be “to deprive.”  In the above hypothetical, because Donald merely intended to “prank” Victor, the temporary deprivation would not be considered a theft because Donald lacked the “specific intent” to deprive.

Penal Code section 487 – Grand Theft

Penal Code section 487 is a more serious version of Penal Code section 484.  While the conduct is nearly identical, California grand theft is considered a wobbler; that is, a crime that can be punished as either a felony or a misdemeanor.  The key distinction between a petty theft and a grand theft is the value of the property involved.  If the value is over $950, the act would be eligible to charged as a grand theft.

Penal Code section 496 – Receiving Stolen Property

The crime of receiving stolen property is often used to punish defendants who did not personally engage in the theft.  To establish a defendant’s criminal liability, the prosecutor must prove: 1) you received property that is stolen, and 2) you knew the property was stolen.

The part of Penal Code section 496 is easy to understand.  The particular property must be stolen; that is, it was taken from its rightful owner as a result of any of these theft crimes.  The second part of this code is the key to any prosecution for receiving stolen property.


The following is something we hear all too often from clients: “How should I know that the property was stolen? I am a victim in this, too!”  Indeed, it would be tremendously unfair to hold someone criminally liable for buying a stolen property if the person did not know the stolen nature of the property.  Thankfully, the law accounts for this possibility in requiring that a defendant actually knew that the property was stolen before a conviction under Penal Code section 496 is possible.

Of course, it is sometimes difficult to determine what you knew at a point in time.  As such, we have to look at the circumstantial evidence at the time to decipher your then-existing knowledge.  If you are facing a charge for Penal Code section 496, it is imperative that you hire a competent attorney to help establish your lack of knowledge!

Penal Code section 459 – Burglary

Penal Code section 459 is often confused with Penal Code section 484.  The reason is simple; it is because in everyday conversations, we often use the words “theft” and “burglary” interchangeably.  But, when it comes to California penal statutes, the two words have vastly different meanings.

In California, one is in violation of Penal Code section 459 if you: entered a building with the intent to commit a theft or any felony.  Compare that to the legal definition of petty theft or grand theft (see above).  You’ll quickly see that the crime of burglary does not actually require anything be stolen or taken!  Unlike other theft-related crimes, the crime of burglary is only concerned about your intent as you entered a building.

To be convicted of a burglary, you must have one of following intents as you entered a building: 1) the intent to commit a theft, or 2) the intent to commit a felony.  Note that this intent must be present as you are entering the building.  In other words, it would not be a burglary if you entered a building and subsequently developed the intent to steal/commit a felony.

This distinction can play a major role in your case.  Take the following hypotheticals:

1.  Donald enters a liquor store to buy some beer.  After getting the beer, he realized that he forgot his wallet at home.  Instead of going home, Donald tries to sneak out with the beer.  Here, Donald would be guilty of theft, but not burglary.  This is because Donald did not have the intent to steal when he entered the liquor store.

2.  Donald enters the same liquor store, this time to steal some beer.  Upon entering, he realized that the liquor store is all sold out of liquor, so he leaves the store.  Here, Donald could be found guilty of burglary, but not theft.  This is because while Donald did not actually take anything, he did enter with the intent to commit a theft.

It should be noted that the crime of burglary comes in varying degrees.  An ordinary burglary can be punished either as a misdemeanor or felony.  There are also 2 other commonly seen burglary charges we’ll discuss further below.

Penal Code section 459.5 – Commercial Burglary (Shoplifting)

The crime of shoplifting is essentially an ordinary burglary, but with the additional requirements that: 1) the building is a commercial establishment, 2) the entering was made during business hours, and 3) the value of the property taken is $950 or less.  To put it simply, the crime of shoplifting punishes someone for entering a business, during business hours, with the intent to commit a petty theft.

Because of the close relation between the two crimes, petty theft and shoplifting are often charged together.  While petty theft punishes you for the act of stealing, the burglary charge punishes you for the mere entrance to commit the theft.  But, as we noted in the earlier hypothetical, these two crimes are not always committed together!  For example, even if you indeed committed a petty theft, you may very well be innocent of the burglary because you did not enter the store with the intent to steal.

Penal Code section 460 – Residential Burglary

Penal Code section 460 is an enhancement of the ordinary burglary charge.  The distinction is that the building where the entrance took place is a “dwelling”.  A residential burglary, while similar to an ordinary burglary, is extremely serious.  Not only is it an automatic felony, but it is also categorized as a strike-felony under California’s three-strikes law.  As such, it is very important to have an attorney fighting on your behalf if you are facing a residential burglary charge.

Penal Code section 211 – Robbery

The crime of robbery builds upon the crime of theft.  In California, robberies are considered to be extremely serious cases.  Not only are they automatic felonies, but they are considered a violent felony (which automatically makes them strike felonies, too).

The key element added to a robbery is this: you used force or fear in the taking.  While the image that comes to mind is the use of force to consummate the taking, that is not the only way a robbery can occur.  The following are other ways for the force or fear to be used:

1.  To stop one from resisting

2.  To wrestle the property from the owner

3.  To aid in the escape.

In any of the above scenarios, the crime would be elevated from a theft to a robbery.  While this difference may seem minor, it can have absolutely devastating consequences.  To put it into context, a petty theft carries a maximum penalty of up to 6 months in county jail.  But if the same theft was committed as you wrestled the property from the owner’s grasp, you can be convicted of a robbery, which carries up to 5 years in state prison!

No matter what your situation looks like, Thomas Wang is a theft attorney who can help.

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