When Does Stealing Become a Felony?

Theft happens in many different ways, and the punishments associated with theft are proportionate to the severity of the crime that took place. In California, crimes involving theft are defined by how much was stolen and they way in which it was taken. Depending on what was stolen how the crime took place, theft can be classified as a misdemeanor or a felony. Illegally taking or using items that belong to a business or to another person will result in charges, but the severity of the charges will vary.

Are There Different Types of Theft?

Generally speaking, theft is split into two different classes in the legal system, those classes being petty theft and grand theft. The difference between these classifications is how much the stolen goods are worth.

Petty Theft

In California, petty theft charges are brought against someone who has stolen property or money equal to or less than $950. To be considered guilty of petty theft, one must:

  • Take property from a person or business without their permission
  • Plan to keep what they stole permanently or keep it for long enough that the original owner loses enjoyment, or the item loses value
  • Take the property from the original premises

The penalties for petty theft are less severe than the penalties for grand theft because petty theft involves much smaller amounts of property and less value. Someone convicted of petty theft can expect the following consequences:

  • A county jail sentence of up to 6 months, or
  • A fine worth up to $1,000, or
  • Imprisonment and a fine

Grand Theft

Grand theft is a more severe crime than petty theft because it involves larger sums of money or more items than petty theft. Grand theft happens less often than petty theft because it requires more coordination and is often planned in advance, whereas petty theft tends to happen more spontaneously. For someone to be convicted of grand theft, they must:

  • Steal property, money, or labor worth more than $950
  • Steal farm products worth more than $250
  • Steal ocean or agricultural products from a research facility worth more than $250
  • Steal $950 worth of items or time from their employer over the course of 12 months
  • Steal a gun, a car, or a farm animal (regardless of its value)

Given the seriousness of grand theft crimes, the consequences can be quite severe. In California, grand theft is known as a “wobbler”. This means that the crime can be charged differently depending on the circumstances surrounding the theft and the criminal history of the defendant. Grand theft can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. More specifically, grand theft charges are:

  • Up to a year in county jail for misdemeanor grand theft
  • Up to three years in California state prison for felony grand theft
  • If the property stolen is a firearm, it is automatically charged as a felony regardless of the value

In addition to these consequences, charges of grand theft can be increased with certain sentence enhancements that are added to convictions depending on the circumstances. Enhancements applicable to charges of grand theft are:

  • 1 year added to the sentence if the total value of stolen goods is more than $65,000
  • 2 years added to the sentence if the total value of stolen goods is more than $200,000
  • 3 years added to the sentence if the total value of stolen goods is more than $1,300,000
  • 4 years added to the sentence if the total value of stolen goods is more than $3,200,000

Is Theft More Than Stealing Items?

Theft charges are brought on someone depending on what was stolen, how it was stolen, and the general circumstances surrounding the incident. There are many different types of theft charges that can be brought upon a person, and not all of them involve stealing items from a person or from a store.


Robbery is a specific type of theft that includes the use of intimidation, violence, or threats to steal property or money. A crime of theft that does not include these aspects cannot be charged as a robbery. Due to the addition of intimidation or violence, charges of robbery tend to have more severe consequences.


If someone is entrusted with keeping assets safe, such as money or property, and they go on to steal any or all of those assets, they have committed embezzlement. Although this crime is most frequent in business settings, such as accountants funneling money from a company into their own accounts, this can happen to individuals as well. For example, people in conservatorships are more likely to be embezzled from because someone else has legal control over their financial and personal well-being.

Armed Robbery

Armed robbery occurs when someone intimidates or becomes violent with the use of a weapon, such as a gun or a knife, in order to steal goods or money from another person or entity. A conviction of armed robbery will come with a much more severe penalty because a weapon was involved. Sentences for armed robbery in California range from 3 years to 9 years in prison.


If someone convinces another person to hand over money or items under false pretenses, that person has committed fraud. For example, if someone says they will perform work for a person and asks for the money up front but never completes the work, that could result in a fraud charge. Since fraud rarely involves additional crimes such as violence, it is often thought of as a white-collar crime.

Receiving Stolen Property

If someone receives, purchases, hides, or tries to sell items they know were stolen, they have committed a crime. In the state of California, such crimes are also “wobblers” and can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor.


When many people think of theft, they may think of shoplifting. This crime consists of entering a store or other retail space with the intention of stealing their goods or services. In California, shoplifting is one of the most common theft crimes, and anyone convicted of shoplifting will be required to pay a fine anywhere from $50 to $1000. They may also be subject to 6 months in jail.

Bad Checks

If someone writes a check with the knowledge that the check will bounce because their account does not have enough money to cover the amount they are trying to pay, they have committed a form of theft. If someone writes a bad check for an amount exceeding $950, they can be charged with a felony.

Stealing Vehicles

Grand theft auto occurs when someone steals any motorized vehicle generally used for transportation, such as cars, buses, motorcycles, etc.

What Are Some Common Defenses for Grand Theft?

If someone receives a charge of grand theft, they might not be convicted for it if they are able to prove that they did not intend to steal the items or money in question. The prosecution must prove to the judge and/or jury that the defendant went into the situation intending to steal whatever ended up in their possession. Two of the most common defenses against charges of grand theft are:

  • Consent: If the original owner of the property or money that was taken consented to it being taken, there is no basis for a charge of theft. That being said, if consent was given, the defendant must have remained within the boundaries of said consent to defend themselves. For example, if someone was given a credit card to make one purchase but proceeded to make three, the original consent is voided.
  • Claiming right: Someone being charged with theft may be able to use the defense that they truly believed they were entitled to what they stole. If someone believes they are entitled to something they take, they therefore did not intend to steal it, and grand theft cannot be a valid charge against them. There are some complications to this route, though; if the defendant tried to conceal what they stole when it was happening or afterwards, claiming right over the property will fail in court. Also, a defendant cannot claim right over illegal items, such as drugs.

Contact an Attorney Today

If you have been accused of theft or grand theft and need legal representation or advice, contact The Law Office of Brian C. Andritch today. At our firm, we understand that being arrested for theft is a scary and stressful experience. That’s why we treat all of our clients with empathy and make sure to answer all of their questions thoroughly and accurately. With over 20 years of experience providing counsel on criminal cases, our successful track record and reputation will benefit you in defending your case. Contact us today at (559) 484-2112 or via our contact page.

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