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California Theft / Larceny Law

Theft (also called larceny) is a crime against property in California. To prove theft, a prosecutor must establish the defendant's intent to permanently take or withhold the property owner's possession or right to the property -- in other words, the specific intent to steal. Theft can take on many forms depending on the type of property taken as it can involve:

  • Personal property;
  • Money;
  • Real property; or
  • The value of labor or services.

Sometimes, it can take place entirely without the owner's knowledge. However, theft can also occur where an owner entrusts property to another for a temporary or ongoing purpose and the recipient then fails to return the property when due.

Theft is either classified as petty theft or grand theft in California, a difference that depends on the value of the property. Generally, grand theft exists where the property is valued above $950, but there are some exceptions, such as where the property is taken from the victim's person or where the property taken consists of a firearm.

California Theft/Larceny Law: An Overview

To find out more about theft/larceny laws in California, see the chart below which contains specific statutes as well as information on penalties and defenses.


California Penal Code Section 484 (general theft statute)

California Penal Code Section 486 (distinguishing between grand theft and petty theft)

California Penal Code Section 487 (grand theft)

California Penal Code Section 488 (petty theft)

California Penal Code Section 489 (punishments for grand theft)

California Penal Code Section 490 (punishments for petty theft)

Possible Penalties

Petty Theft: This crime may be punished by a fine of up to $1,000, a term of imprisonment lasting up to 6 months, or both. For petty theft of property valued below $50, a prosecutor has the discretion to charge the crime as a misdemeanor or an infraction resulting in a fine of up to $250. Prior criminal history can affect the prosecutor's recommendations.

Grand Theft: This crime may be punished by a term of imprisonment in county jail lasting up to 1 year or by felony sentencing permitted by Section 1170(h) of the code. Felony sentencing may range from 6 months to 3 years, but prior criminal convictions can increase the severity of the sentence imposed by the state court or require imprisonment in state prison rather than in county jail.


Defenses can include:

  • Claim of ownership or right of possession
  • Mistake of fact or law
  • Owner's consent
  • Entrapment
  • Intoxication resulting in a lack of intent to steal

See Larceny Defenses and Theft Defenses for more details.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

California Theft/Larceny Law: Additional Resources

Need Help Today? Get A Free Initial Review Of Your Theft Case

The difference between petty theft and grand theft could mean the difference between an infraction and a fine or 3 years in prison. It's ultimately the prosecution's burden to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, all of the elements in a theft case as well as the value of the property at issue. An experienced criminal defense attorney understands the law and how to challenge any evidence against you. If you're facing theft charges in California, don't take a chance with your future. Instead, you should let the experts help you make your case. Reach out to an attorney near you today and you can receive a free initial case evaluation.

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