Theft Sentencing and Penalties

A typical misdemeanor larceny sentence would be a small fine and less than a year of prison. Grand larceny has more severe penalties. These violations could also create long-lasting consequences. These include a criminal record or difficulties obtaining jobs in the future.

The penalties and sentences for theft crimes can range from minor to severe. Several factors come into play. Theft offenses range from misdemeanor theft, known as petit larceny, to grand larceny. 

Read on to learn more about theft laws and how they might apply to different situations.

Definition of Theft

Theft is the taking of the property of another with the intent to permanently deprive them of the use of the property. Criminal law categorizes the crime of theft into broad groups based on the severity of the crime. These categories include:

  • Petty theft
  • Grand theft
  • Felony grand theft

Sentence length can also depend on the type of theft and the nature and value of the property stolen. Various labels describe different types of theft, such as burglary, larceny, embezzlement, and shoplifting. "Robbery" is also often mentioned when discussing these types of crime. But, unlike other theft cases, robbery is a violent crime and is a felony charge. Thus, it falls under a different category in criminal law.

Property Value and Severity of Theft Penalties

In the legal landscape, the consequences of theft convictions vary significantly. Thus, understanding factors that impact the classification of the crime is essential. Note that the classification of theft as petty, grand, or felony depends on the value of the item stolen.

Petty Theft

In cases where the value of the stolen property is relatively low, petty theft charges may result. States often place a specific dollar figure, such as $500 or $1,000, as the upper limit for petty theft charges. These charges are typically misdemeanors that carry fines or relatively short jail time. The jail time is often less than six months, but because it is a misdemeanor, always less than one year.

Grand Theft

For cases involving more valuable stolen property, an individual may face charges of "grand theft." Grand theft can be a misdemeanor or a felony. Prosecutors have leeway to consider the type of personal property stolen, how the theft occurred, previous criminal history, and concurrent charges. The difference is a misdemeanor will have a maximum jail time of less than one year. Meanwhile, a felony often results in more than a year in state prison.

Grand Theft Felony

Typically, a crime is a grand theft felony if the threshold dollar amount was met or the type of property named in the statute was stolen. States determine the threshold dollar amount for a grand theft felony. For instance, Virginia and Arizona have a threshold of $1,000 in determining if a theft charge will be a misdemeanor or a felony. Felony charges are more severe and typically result in fines, restitution, and jail or prison time.

Felony Theft Penalties: Type of Property

Regardless of the item's value, if certain types of property are stolen, it is considered a felony. A felony carries more severe penalties compared to misdemeanor offenses. Certain states also consider the additional categories of unique items as felonies.

For instance, Kentucky considers the theft of anhydrous ammonia, used in manufacturing methamphetamines, a felony regardless of its value. New York treats as a felony the theft of property like public records, secret scientific material, and a credit or debit card. In Washington, it is a felony to steal a search and rescue dog that is on duty.

These, and other special categories of property, often have separate laws that apply with specific charges and heightened penalties.

Felony Theft Penalties: Manner of Theft

Acts of theft that involve violence are often classified as severe felonies. An example of violence involved in theft includes ripping a purse from a woman. These acts of violence can escalate from theft to a robbery charge, depending on the circumstances. Robbery is "theft accomplished by violence or the threat of violence."

A larceny from the person is usually a felony — but does not involve violence — and the threshold value of what it takes to be considered a felony versus a misdemeanor is usually much lower than the value used in grand versus petty larceny determinations. In Virginia, for example, the value of property taken from the person must be $5 or more to constitute a felony, grand theft. States such as Missouri and Alaska state explicitly that physically taking property from a person is a felony.

Theft Sentencing: Additional Factors

Even in petty theft cases, there can still be significant penalties in states with applicable recidivist or repeat offender sentencing laws, also called "Three Strikes" laws. Regardless of the type of theft charged, an offender's history of theft or related crimes significantly affects sentencing, with repeat offenders receiving less leniency. In contrast, first-time offenders often receive relatively lighter penalties for the same crime.

A defendant's criminal history unrelated to theft can also play a factor in sentencing, as judges generally have sizeable discretion with sentencing decisions. On the flip side, judges also may consider mitigating (or sympathetic) circumstances when coming up with a punishment for a crime.

Other Long-Term Consequences

The law classifies most types of theft as crimes of "moral turpitude." Having one of these offenses on your record can have significant consequences for offenders. A person convicted of criminal charges feels one of the primary impacts in their ability to find employment.

Employers may discover convictions for crimes of moral turpitude. In particular, these criminal charges may appear in background checks during job applications. This could result in disqualification for job applicants. Additionally, immigrants in the country may face deportation or other immigration consequences upon conviction of a crime of moral turpitude.

Questions About Theft Sentencing and Penalties? Ask an Attorney

Facing theft charges can bring long-lasting implications. The consequences of seemingly small acts such as petty theft can also be surprising, depending on your criminal record and where the crime occurred.

If you or your loved one is facing theft charges, asking for legal guidance from a criminal defense lawyer is essential. These cases can be complicated. Understanding a criminal case can be overwhelming.

A theft lawyer can advocate for your case. They can give you a better understanding of your rights and theft defenses available to your case. They can assist you with seeking a plea deal or requesting expungement of criminal records. In some cases of petty theft, a theft attorney can also seek community service instead of jail time.

FindLaw has a directory of criminal defense attorneys in every state. They can do case evaluations and provide legal advice concerning criminal law. In this directory, you can see a list of criminal defense attorneys, their contact information, and the address of their law offices.

Disclaimer: State laws may vary and affect each case's rules. The information contained in this article is not meant to be a substitute for legal advice.

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