People commonly use the word “theft" to refer to any crime involving taking another person's property or money without consent. In legal terms, however, theft is a precise definition. It may also encompass more than one category of crime. This comprehensive article about theft gives insight into the various aspects of this crime. It also includes different circumstances and facts demonstrating each category of theft. These types of theft range from larceny to burglary to robbery. Having an understanding is critical, particularly for those facing criminal charges related to theft offenses.
Common Law Crimes: Theft and Others
In general, theft is considered the intentional and unlawful taking of someone else's property. But the precise definition of this varies in every state. Some jurisdictions define this act based on the common law concept of “larceny." Larceny is taking away another's property to deprive the owner of the property of its possession permanently.
While some states have merged larceny with general theft statutes, others have kept it as a separate offense. States that retained larceny often codified the standard law definition within its penal code.
The offense of larceny is often defined as:
- The unlawful taking and carrying away of someone else's property;
- The unlawful taking occurs without the owner's consent; and
- The intent behind unlawful taking is to deprive the owner of their property permanently
Related Crimes: Robbery and Burglary
Movies and television shows have popularized images of theft. The public pictures it as thieves stealthily sneaking through ventilation systems or a team of organized criminals perpetrating a bank heist. But none of these sensationalized fictional criminals would likely be charged with simple theft. 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 the following elements. Note, however, that each state also has its own set of laws that enumerates the elements of robbery.
- An individual takes another person's property with the intent to steal;
- The individual takes the property against the owner's will; and
- The person takes the property using violence or threatening force against someone
Unlike simple theft or larceny, using force is a necessary element of robbery. This distinction is commonly used to justify harsher punishments for those convicted of robbery.
Successful property acquisition is not a prerequisite for a robbery conviction in certain states. Essentially, these states prioritize punishment for the use or threat of force rather than stealing. Thus, regardless of whether the taking is successful, the unlawful attempt to take someone's property by force supports the robbery charge.
Some states limit the scope of robbery charges by requiring an imminent threat of force used in the taking. In this context, "imminent" is a legal requirement for a clear and not hypothetical risk of physical danger. Likewise, a threat of imminent physical harm is one of harm likely to occur in a short period.
Burglary is commonly thought of as 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 (1) the unauthorized entry or presence, (2) in a structure or dwelling, and (3) with the intent to commit a theft (or other crime).
State laws vary slightly on several of these elements. In some states, the prosecution must prove the defendant broke into a building. In others, simply hiding in a business to remain after closing time could satisfy the element of unauthorized presence. Meanwhile, some states cling to the common law principle that burglary can only occur in a dwelling where people reside. A person technically cannot burgle malls and art galleries through the common law.
It's also worth noting that a burglar doesn't actually need to commit theft or any other crime. If the burglar makes an unlawful entry intending to commit a crime inside, it counts as burglary. In this way, the law prioritizes the violation of the location over any theft or petty crime that happens afterward.
Shoplifting and Embezzlement
Shoplifting and embezzlement are other common varieties of theft that take on special designations.
In shoplifting, a person does the following:
- Willfully conceals or takes possession of items that are offered for sale;
- Intends to deprive the owner of the item, which is typically a store, of possession of that item; and
- Fails to pay for the item
Shoplifting could result in a class A misdemeanor theft (the most serious misdemeanor) when a property stolen is worth less than a certain amount. The dollar amount at which the state classifies the charge as a felony or misdemeanor varies depending upon your state. In Illinois, a misdemeanor theft charge concerns property worth $500 or less. In Virginia, misdemeanor theft is limited to property worth less than $1,000. For theft of property exceeding those values, in those states, felony charges apply.
The value of the stolen property required for a class A or class 1 misdemeanor varies among the states. Misdemeanors can be punished by a jail sentence of up to twelve months, while felonies may be punished by a year or more in prison or jail. If in doubt, it is best to contact a criminal law office near you for more legal advice.
When embezzlement occurs, a person is in a position of authority or trust. Then, that person steals or misappropriates the assets in their care. Examples of people in positions of authority could include executives at a financial or banking institution or 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. That person must take property or money in the following way:
- By fraud in the process of conversion for personal use, sale, or some other unauthorized reason; and
- By hiding their actions and the stolen or misappropriated assets permanently
Types and Degrees of Theft
Some of the most essential factors in theft cases are what type of property was stolen and how much the property was worth. These factors can often determine the charge category and potential penalties for those accused of theft. Many jurisdictions create degrees of theft crimes based on 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. Meanwhile, first-degree property theft valued at over $5000 is punished as a class B felony. Different statutes may govern the theft of other items like firearms and cars.
Petty theft often involves stolen items of lower value. Meanwhile, grand theft involves higher-valued property. Examples of grand theft include stealing cars or other items falling above a specific value set by each state's laws.
Get a Handle on Your Theft Charges: Call a Lawyer
Theft crimes carry potential punishments ranging from relatively minor to extremely serious. Depending on your circumstances, even a misdemeanor conviction can damage or complicate your life for years. Due to the varying legal definitions of this crime, it is essential to consult a criminal defense lawyer. Through their experience and expertise in criminal law, they can give you a better understanding of the elements of this criminal charge and how they apply in your state.
Remember that theft convictions can create a significant impact on your future opportunities. A person found guilty of this crime could face a prison sentence, jail time, or fines—in addition to a criminal record. However, there are procedures to reduce the long-term effects of this criminal conviction. In criminal law, this process is referred to as expungement. A theft attorney or a criminal defense lawyer can help you navigate this process.
A criminal defense attorney can represent you whether you are accused of retail theft, misdemeanor theft, receiving stolen property, or are facing DUI charges. They can give you legal advice on the steps you should take moving forward.