Penal Code 490.2 PC | Petty Theft

Penal Code 490.2 PC | Petty Theft

Petty theft–we’ve all been guilty of it at some point, right? Maybe you swiped a candy bar or lip gloss from the drug store when you were a kid. Or “borrowed” a t-shirt from a friend that you never returned. Heck, maybe you even took home office supplies from work every now and then.

But at what point does petty theft become a crime? That candy bar might’ve gotten you a slap on the wrist as a minor. But as an adult in California, certain petty thefts can land you in legal trouble.

Let’s break down California’s petty theft law–Penal Code 490.2 PC–and what it means for anyone facing petty theft charges. We’ll also look at potential defense strategies if your facing prosecution.

What is Petty Theft Under Penal Code 490.2 PC?

California law defines petty theft as the stealing of money, labor, or property valued at $950 or less. It can include:

  • Shoplifting
  • Stealing a bicycle
  • Taking cash or belongings from someone’s purse or wallet
  • “Borrowing” a friend’s smartphone or laptop without returning it
  • Filing fake refunds for purchased items
  • Stealing food, drinks or goods from an employer

Petty theft becomes a misdemeanor offense under Penal Code 490.2 when:

  • The value of the stolen property is $950 or less
  • The theft is not from the person of another
  • The property was not taken from a commercial establishment during regular business hours
  • The defendant has not previously been convicted of certain theft-related crimes

Let’s break these down further.

Value of $950 or Less

If the value of the stolen property exceeds $950, the crime becomes grand theft under PC 487, not petty theft. The value is determined by the fair market value of the property–not necessarily what you paid for it.

For example, stealing a designer purse worth $1500 retail would be grand theft even if you bought it on sale for $500. The fair market value is what counts.

Not From a Person

If the theft is directly from another person–like picking someone’s pocket or snatching a purse–it’s not considered petty theft, even if the value is under $950. Instead, it becomes grand theft per PC 487 or robbery per PC 211.

Not From a Business

Shoplifting during regular store hours is not petty theft, regardless of value. Shoplifting or stealing from any commercial establishment during business hours is burglary under PC 459. After hours it may be petty theft.

No Prior Convictions

If you have prior convictions for certain theft or theft-related crimes, a new petty theft charge may be filed as a felony under the three strikes law. These include:

  • Petty theft with priors (PC 666)
  • Grand theft (PC 487)
  • Grand theft auto (PC 487(d))
  • Robbery (PC 211)
  • Carjacking (PC 215)
  • Burglary (PC 459)

So while petty theft is generally a misdemeanor, a prior record could bump it to a felony.

Penalties for Petty Theft

As a misdemeanor, petty theft under PC 490.2 can carry:

  • Up to 6 months in county jail
  • A max fine of $1,000
  • Informal probation

If charged as a felony due to prior convictions, potential penalties increase to:

  • 16 months, 2 years or 3 years in state prison
  • A max fine of $10,000
  • Formal felony probation

The court may also order counseling, restitution, and community service. And a petty theft conviction remains on your criminal record for life.

Legal Defenses

Just because you’re charged with petty theft doesn’t mean your guilty. A skilled criminal defense attorney can evaluate the evidence and build strong defenses to fight the charges. Common defenses include:

You Didn’t Steal Anything

Mistaken identity is a common defense. Perhaps someone else took the items in question, or you were wrongly accused of shoplifting. Without solid evidence like video footage or eyewitnesses, reasonable doubt exists.

You Intended to Return the Item

If you borrowed a friend’s property without permission but fully intended to return it undamaged, you may not have committed theft. The prosecution would need to prove your intent to permanently deprive the owner.

The Value is Over $950

If you can show the fair market value of the stolen property exceeds $950, the charge should be grand theft, not petty theft. The value makes a big difference in potential penalties.

You Have a Legal Right to the Property

For example, taking funds from a joint bank account that legally belongs to you as well. Or keeping property given as a gift. The property must truly belong to you, not just your belief that it does.

You Were Falsely Accused

If a store employee or security guard falsely accuses you of shoplifting, any evidence of theft may be called into question. Don’t hesitate to contact an attorney if you feel wrongly accused.

You’re the Victim of Selective Enforcement

If others are getting away with the same petty theft but you’re the only one penalized, it may be a case of discrimination. Your attorney can argue selective enforcement and request charges be dropped.

Getting Legal Help

Don’t take petty theft charges lightly. Even misdemeanors carry jail time, fines, and a permanent criminal record. But with an experienced California criminal defense lawyer on your side, you can fight the charges and protect your future.

At the Law Offices of Randy Collins, we provide strong legal defense for clients facing petty theft and all theft-related charges. Based in Los Angeles, we serve clients across California. Contact us 24/7 for a free case evaluation.


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