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Theft Overview

People commonly use the word theft to refer to any crime that involves the taking of another person's property or money without their permission. In legal lingo, however, theft has a more specific legal meaning, which includes crimes of more than one category, but also excludes several crimes that also include an act of stealing. This article provides a theft overview, including definitions and specific examples.

Common-Law Crimes: Theft and Others

Broadly speaking, theft is categorized as the intentional and unlawful taking of another person's property, but each state sets its own specific definition of theft. For many states, the definition of theft is derived from the common-law crime of larceny. Larceny is an offense that punishes the unauthorized taking of someone else's property without permission, with the intent to permanently (not temporarily) deprive the owner of the property.

While some states have merged larceny with general theft statutes, other states have kept larceny as its own separate offense. States that still have retained larceny have usually codified the common law definition within the state's penal code.

States that still recognize the crime of larceny have codified its elements into their penal code. The exact definition of larceny varies between states, but most of them incorporate the elements listed below in some form. In many ways, the definition of larceny is similar to the modern definition of theft.

The offense of larceny is often defined as:

  1. The unlawful taking and carrying away of someone else's property,
  2. The unlawful taking occurs without the owner's consent, and
  3. The intent behind the unlawful taking is to permanently deprive the owner of their property.

Related crimes: Robbery and Burglary

In some ways, the crime of theft is also defined by what it is not. Movies and television shows have popularized images of stealthy thieves sneaking though ventilation systems to nab artwork from a museum or a team of well-armed and organized criminals perpetrating a bank heist in broad daylight. None of these sensationalized fictional criminals would likely be charged with simple theft, even though they are taking property or money. They would instead be charged with either burglary or robbery, depending on the circumstances.

Ranging from a bank heist to a purse snatching, robbery is typically defined with these elements (while each state also sets its own specific definition):

  • Taking another person's property with the intent to steal it,
  • The taking occurs against the will of the person from whom the property is taken, and
  • The taking is done by violence or threat of force against a person.

Unlike simple theft or larceny, the use of force is a necessary element of robbery. This distinction is commonly used to justify harsher punishments for those convicted of robbery.

It is important to note that in some states, a person can be convicted of the crime of robbery even if the taking of the property is not successful. Essentially, these states prioritize punishment of the use or threat of force, rather than the stealing. So, regardless of whether the taking is successful, the unlawful attempt to take someone's property by force supports the charge of robbery.

One way that some states limit the scope of robbery charges is by requiring that the threat of force used in the taking be imminent. In this context, "imminent" is a legal requirement that the risk of physical danger is clear and not hypothetical. Likewise, a threat of imminent physical harm is one of harm that is likely to occur in a short period of time.

Less violent yeggmen might prefer to pilfer in a stealthy fashion, sneaking into their victims' homes or businesses and making off with valuables under the cover of night. Those who are caught will almost certainly face charges of burglary. Burglary is commonly thought of as a breaking into a structure to steal items inside, but the model penal code expands the latter element to include the commission of any crime.

The elements of burglary typically include:

  • Unathorized entry or presence
  • In a structure or dwelling
  • With the intent to commit a theft (or other crime)

State laws vary slightly on several of these elements. In some states, it is necessary for the prosecution to prove that the defendant broke into a building, while in others, simply hiding in a business to remain after closing time could satisfy the element of unauthorized presence. Other states cling to the common law principle that burglary can only take place in a "dwelling" where people reside, implying that malls and art galleries cannot be burgled.

Note also that no theft or other crime need actually be committed by a burglar, so long as the unlawful entry was committed with the intent to commit another crime within. In this way, the law prioritizes the violation of the location to any theft or petty crime that happens afterwards.

Shoplifting and Embezzlement

Other common varieties of theft that take on special designations include shoplifting and embezzlement.

In shoplifting, a person does the following:

  1. Willfully conceals or takes possession of items that are offered for sale;
  2. Intends to deprive the owner of the item, which is typically a store, of possession of that item; and
  3. Fails to pay for the item.

In embezzlement, a person in a position of authority or trust steals or misappropriates assets over which they are responsible. Examples of people in positions of authority could include executives at a financial or banking institution or perhaps even officials in positions of power in government. Anyone in a position of authority, for purposes of defining the elements of embezzlement, is often also defined as being in a position of trust, as well.

In stealing or misappropriating whatever the person in a position of trust or authority takes in an act of embezzlement, that person must take property or money in the following way:

  • Intentionally,
  • By fraud in a process of conversion for the purposes of personal use, sale, or some other unauthorized reason, and/or
  • By hiding their actions and the stolen or misappropriated assets permanently.


Types and Degrees of Theft

Some of the most important factors in theft cases are what type of property was stolen and how much the property was actually worth. These facts can often determine the charge category and potential penalties for those accused of theft. Many jurisdictions create degrees of theft crimes based upon the value of stolen goods.

For example, a third-degree theft in Washington is a gross misdemeanor involving property with a market value that does not exceed $750. On the other hand, a first-degree theft (of property valued over $5000) would be punished as a class B felony. Theft of items in special categories (like firearms and cars) are governed under different statutes.

In what is known as petty theft, the stolen items are typically of lower value. In what is referred to as grand theft, the stolen items are typically of high value. Examples of grand theft include stealing cars and other items that fall above a value that each state sets in its own laws concerning theft. In some states, an item does not necessarily need to be of high value for the theft of it to be considered grand.

Get a Handle on Your Theft Charges: Call a Lawyer

Theft crimes carry potential punishments that range from the relatively minor to the extremely serious. Depending on your circumstances, even a misdemeanor conviction can damage or complicate your life for years to come. If you still have questions and concerns after learning more about this crime in this theft overview, contact a qualified local defense attorney today.

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