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When is Theft a Felony Crime?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Sep 15, 2023

Theft is a criminal act involving the unlawful taking of someone else's property without their consent, intending to deprive them of it permanently.

In California, like in many other states, theft can be classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on various factors, including the value of the stolen property.

When is Theft a Felony Crime in California?
A theft crime could be filed as a felony when the value of the stolen property exceeds $950.

In other words, the felony theft threshold refers to how much property value you must steal for a prosecutor to charge the crime as a felony. Under California law, you commit felony theft, Penal Code 487 PC grand theft, if you take property with a value greater than $950.

PC 487 says, “Grand theft is theft committed in any of the following cases: (a) When the money, labor, real property, or personal property taken is of a value exceeding nine hundred fifty dollars ($950), except as provided in subdivision (b).

(c) When the property is taken from the person of another. (d) When the property taken is any of the following: (1) An automobile. (2) A firearm.”

Notably, a prosecutor could also charge you with felony theft based on your criminal record, the type of stolen property, and the location of the theft.

The penalties for felony theft convictions usually carry county jail or state prison time between three to five years, along with hefty fines.

Since the penalties for felony theft are substantially greater than those for a misdemeanor, an experienced California criminal defense attorney will try to reduce theft charges to misdemeanors whenever possible.

Petty Theft Versus Grand Theft

When discussing whether theft is chargeable as a misdemeanor or a felony in California, we're talking about the difference between petty theft (Penal Code 484 PC) and grand theft (Penal Code 487 PC).

Petty Theft Versus Grand Theft
The difference between PC 484 petty theft and PC 487 grand theft is the value of the property.

The distinction between these two lies primarily in the value of the property stolen—and, in some cases, the type of property.

As defined by California law, petty theft involves the unlawful taking of someone else's property where the property's value is $950 or less. This is considered a less serious offense and is typically charged as a misdemeanor, carrying potential penalties including fines and up to six months in county jail.

On the other hand, grand theft refers to the theft of property whose value exceeds $950. Grand theft can be charged as a felony, depending on the specifics of the crime and the criminal history of the accused. If charged as a felony, the penalties can be more severe, including imprisonment for up to three years.

However, it's important to note that certain property types, regardless of their value, can automatically constitute grand theft. These include items such as cars (PC 487(d)(1)), firearms (PC 487(d)(2)), and certain farm animals.

Additionally, theft directly from a person, even if the value does not exceed $950, can also be classified as grand theft. There are different ways you can commit grand theft, such as the following:

  • Grand theft by larceny;
  • Grand theft by false pretense;
  • Grand theft by trick;
  • Theft by embezzlement;
  • Wage theft;

Grand theft penalties apply to thefts of many types of property regardless of their value and if you have one of the following prior convictions:

  • Sex offense requiring California's sex offender registration or
  • Some serious felony convictions, such as murder, rape, sexually violent crimes and child molestation.

What Are the Exceptions to the $950 Threshold?

Certain instances detailed in PC 487 qualify a crime as grand theft, irrespective of the $950 threshold. These include:

  • Stolen livestock or produce: If you steal certain types of livestock or farm crops where the total wholesale value exceeds $250, it's considered grand theft.
  • Stolen aquaculture products: Stealing seafood, kelp, etc., from a commercial or research facility producing these items constitutes grand theft if the total value exceeds $250.
  • Automobiles: Stealing a car of any value constitutes grand theft (i.e., grand theft auto).
  • Firearms: Stealing a firearm of any value constitutes grant theft. 
  • Stealing from the person of another: If you directly steal from a person, it is grand theft regardless of the value of the property taken.
  • Embezzlement: If you steal from an employer in increments totaling more than $950 over 12 months, it can be charged as grand theft even though the individual instances of theft may count less than that.

Misdemeanor versus "Wobbler"

In California, even if the property stolen exceeds the $950 threshold or otherwise is considered grand theft versus petty theft, the crime is not automatically escalated from a misdemeanor to a felony offense.

Grand theft in California is a "wobbler" offense, meaning prosecutors can still opt to charge it either as a misdemeanor or a felony, taking other factors into account.

What Are the Related Crimes?

Several California Laws are related to Penal Code 487 PC grand theft, such as the following:

  • Penal Code 487(d)(1) PC – grand theft auto
  • Penal Code 487(d)(2) PC – grand theft firearm;
  • Penal Code 459 PC – burglary and auto burglary;
  • Penal Code 211 PC – robbery;
  • Penal Code 470 PC - forgery;
  • Penal Code 484 and 488 PC - petty theft;
  • Penal Code 666 PC - petty theft with a prior;

What Factors Are Considered in Charging Decisions?

Petty theft is always charged as a misdemeanor. However, when determining whether to charge grand theft as a misdemeanor or felony, prosecutors consider several factors. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Prior Offenses. If you have previous convictions for theft-related offenses, the prosecutor may be more likely to charge the current offense as a felony.
  • Type of Property Stolen: Prosecutors may consider the type of property stolen and its value when deciding how to charge the crime. Property that automatically qualifies as grand theft (i.e., cars and firearms) usually results in felony charges, irrespective of their value. 
  • Owner of the Property: Property theft from specific individuals, for example, elderly or dependent adults, can lead to more severe charges. Stealing directly from the person of another (e.g., robbery) is also more likely to be charged as a felony. 
  • Location of the Theft: Theft from specific locations, like a person's home or a government facility, can result in more severe charges.

Contact our law firm to review the case details and legal options moving forward. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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