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What Is the Punishment For Theft in California?

On Behalf of | Oct 25, 2023 | Criminal Defense

“Theft” is the term used to describe the unlawful seizure of someone else’s belongings or shoplifting from a business. Although the textbook definition of theft is cut and dry, the legal definition can become slightly tricky. In terms of sentencing, depending on the initial staff charge, as well as the escalation of that charge, the punishment for these crimes can vary. Here is a breakdown of the general expectations surrounding each theft charge, as well as what to expect after sentencing.

Types of Theft Charges and Penalties

Theft charges are broken up into three main subdivisions, each carrying its distinct sentencing guideline and structure. Depending on the value of the goods stolen, as well as the total amount of goods taken, the escalation of a theft charge can vary, for example:

  • Petty Theft: Petty theft in California is defined as taking something worth less than $950. Most shoplifting accusations are regarded as petty theft since the average amount of items stolen in these cases is less than $950. The typical punishment for petty theft is a court-imposed fine, up to six months in prison, restitution, and a stay-away order. For more minor cases of petty theft, California Penal Code Section 490.1 PC allows for these charges to be reduced to an infraction, but only in certain situations.
  • Grand Theft: Grand theft charges, as opposed to lesser theft charges, are brought up when more than $950 worth of goods is taken. Referred to as a “wobbler,” these charges may be filed as a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the prosecution’s approach. For misdemeanor grand theft offenses, the maximum sentence for imprisonment is one year, and the maximum fine is one thousand dollars. For felony grand theft convictions, $10,000 in fines and three years in jail is the maximum sentence.
  • Grand Theft Auto: Theft of any vehicle is the basis of grand theft auto charges, which are similar to grand theft in that they can result in misdemeanor or felony convictions. Grand theft auto convictions for felonies can result in up to three years in prison and $10,000 in fines. Misdemeanor charges can result in up to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines. If the stolen vehicle was an emergency response vehicle or a vehicle specially customized for disabled users, your potential prison term may be up to four years.

Besides value, theft charges are separate from burglary and robbery charges due to the basis of intent. Petty theft, grand theft, and grand theft auto are not precalculated like burglary, and they are not committed to intentionally harm someone as are robbery charges, meaning they typically lead to misdemeanor convictions, as opposed to felony charges leading to harsher sentences.

Burglary Penalties

Burglary is defined as the willful entry into a private home, company, or vehicle to steal. Depending on how severe the accusation is, a burglary charge may have different repercussions. For instance, first-degree burglary, when someone enters a home or any other place while it is occupied, may result in a six-year jail sentence. Other sorts of theft are included in second-degree burglary, which has a mandatory one-year prison sentence.

Robbery Penalties

Robbery, apart from burglary and theft, is seen as a violent crime that carries a higher sentence than other property-related offenses. The intent behind a robbery is to forcibly take goods in a threatening manner, forming the basis for a violent crime. First and second-degree felonies are used to punish robbery, resulting in nine years in a state jail if you are found guilty of first-degree robbery or up to five years in a state jail if you are found guilty of second-degree robbery. Both first and second-degree robbery can result in thousands of dollars in fines, along with mandatory jail time and a strike against California’s Three Strikes Law, meaning the best defense in these situations is a seasoned criminal defense attorney.


Q: How much can you steal in California without going to jail?

A: Depending on the number of goods you steal and the total value of said goods, the punishment and jail time attributed to your case can vary. Certain petty theft charges, due to the low value attached to the goods, may be dismissed and not legally pursued.

Q: What amount of theft is a felony in California?

A: To make a theft charge turn from petty theft into grand theft, which can be pursued as a felony, the amount of money stolen, or the total value of the goods stolen, must exceed $950. Grand theft is considered a “wobbler,” which means that it can be pursued as a felony or misdemeanor; however, the value of what was stolen is the biggest determining factor for the escalation of the crime, which is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Q: Will I go to jail for petty theft in California?

A: The penalty for any petty theft charge in California is always considered a misdemeanor. Typically, misdemeanor charges for theft come with a maximum of six months in county jail alongside fines of up to $1,000. For petty thefts downgraded to infractions, the maximum penalties do not exceed around $250 in fines.

Q: What makes theft a felony in California?

A: The biggest determining factor that decides whether a theft charge will be escalated to the felony level is the amount of money and value of the items stolen. Any value exceeding $950 is considered grand theft, as opposed to petty theft, and can be charged as a felony depending on the prosecution and how they choose to pursue the crime.

Legal Defense for Various Theft Charges

Facing any kind of legal battle is stressful, especially one as loaded as a theft charge. The lasting effects of a theft conviction on your record can bar you from promotions, job options, and even applications for loans. To properly approach any theft charge, understanding the basis of the law and what penalties you may face is crucial for seeking out a defense team. At the Exum Law Offices, our criminal defense attorneys can offer advice on how to approach a theft charge. Your proper defense begins with reaching out to our team.