Petty Theft: Definition and Consequences

Stealing another person’s property is known as theft or larceny. States set their own laws regarding degrees of theft, generally according to the value of the item taken. Some states label such crimes as petty theft or grand theft or petty and grand larceny, with one being a misdemeanor and the other being a felony.

Public records describe the laws about theft as well as the arrest and court records pertaining to charges that individuals face for such crimes.

What is Petty Theft?

What is petty theft

Petty theft is a misdemeanor crime defined by individual states. It is the lowest level criminal misdemeanor. In general states require that the following criteria are met to qualify as petty theft:

  • property taken must meet a certain threshold of value, often less than $500 to $1000;
  • the subject intended to deprive the owner of the enjoyment of their property, and
  • the property is taken or removed permanently.

What Qualifies as Petty Theft?

Examples of petty theft include shoplifting from stores, consuming food without paying, driving away before paying for fuel, and other nonviolent, “victimless” crimes. In North Carolina, petty theft is the term for stealing anything valued at under $1,000 while in Oregon the value is set at $100. The theft of a vehicle, regardless of its value, is usually considered a more serious crime than petty theft.

Stealing from an individual, with or without force, such as mugging a person for a wallet or carjacking, are more serious crimes and are not considered petty theft.

Petty Theft vs Grand Theft

The value of the item taken is what separates petty theft from grand theft. States sometimes specify items that cannot be considered under petty theft regardless of their value, such as Kentucky, which enumerates the theft of guns or anhydrous ammonia, an ingredient in manufacturing methamphetamines, as more serious than petty theft. Similarly, Idaho specifically names theft of farm animals or credit cards as more serious offenses than petty theft.

Florida breaks petty theft into smaller categories, with “petit theft” being the second-degree misdemeanor of taking an item or service valued at less than $100. Theft of items valued from $100-$300 is a first-degree misdemeanor.

How Much do You Have to Steal to Go to Jail?

How Much do You Have to Steal to Go to Jail?

Punishment for petty theft, like most low-level misdemeanors, can carry a jail term of up to a year. Courts determine whether such a punishment is appropriate according to the circumstances and individual’s criminal history, which is part of the public record unless they are a juvenile (juvenile cases are not public records unless the individual is charged as an adult). Repeat offenders are more likely to earn jail time than first-time offenders. Likewise, crimes against children or the elderly are often considered more serious than crimes against a business or a peer.

Misdemeanor convictions often carry fines of $250 to $2500. When a person cannot pay the fine, they may spend time in jail instead. In addition, a judge or magistrate may require reparations, or reimbursement, be paid to the individual or company whose belonging was stolen.

Examples of Petty Theft/Larceny

  • changing price tags on items to pay less
  • switching packages to put an expensive item into a cheap item’s packaging
  • taking a bicycle that was left outside a house
  • picking up someone else’s jacket at a bar or theater
  • concealing an item so that you pay for one but take two
  • sneaking into a theater without paying for a ticket
  • bringing your own food into a theater against posted prohibition to the contrary
  • refusing to pay for a service that you’ve used, such as a boat or bike rental

Petty Theft Consequences

Getting arrested is not always a part of being charged for petty theft. Sometimes police may issue a ticket that includes an order to appear in court to answer to charges.

Petty theft, often shoplifting, is commonly pursued by store security guards who may detain shoppers to question them but do not have the power of arrest. If these guards find probable cause to pursue a shoplifting charge, they will refer the matter to police. If the situation is serious, involving thousands of dollars worth of merchandise, sophisticated methods, or an organized network of shoplifters, police are likely to respond immediately.  For petty theft events local police may choose to follow up with the individual later, including with a court summons delivered to the accused person’s home address.

The statute of limitations for petty theft is usually a year. That means if a security video captures an individual’s face or license plate at the scene of a crime or theft the police may follow up at a much later date. Many stores also have security videos at the cash register, allowing store security to pick up details of a person’s identification during a transaction that a wall-mounted security camera may miss.

When the shoplifter is a minor their parent or guardian is frequently summonsed to court as well. Juvenile court proceedings are not public however and juvenile records are destroyed when the individual turns 18.

Petty Theft Charges and Punishment

Petty theft charges

Charges for petty theft below the threshold set by state law are left to the discretion of the local police, prosecutor, and magistrate. First-time offenders or those who can argue that theft was an accident are likely to see “nolle prosequi” entered in their records, meaning that the district attorney’s office declined to prosecute. This is possible even after a court appearance before a magistrate.

A magistrate or judge may also impose a fine or community service in exchange for removing the charge when the penalty is paid. Some first-time offenders may be sent to “diversion” programs designed to treat underlying issues like drug abuse, alcoholism, or psychological issues.

Frequent offenders are more likely to be prosecuted for minor offenses, and more likely to be jailed.

How Long Does Petty Theft Stay on One’s Record?

Many states have created “sunset” provisions that automatically expunge minor offenses from a person’s record after a period without other charges, usually five years. In most states a failure to prosecute results in no arrest record. Check with your state laws to find out if you have to petition the court to have misdemeanor charges, non-prosecution records, or minor convictions removed from your record.