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Theft Overview

What is Theft?

The term theft is used widely to refer to crimes involving the taking of a person's property without their permission. But theft has a very broad legal meaning which may encompass more than one category, and multiple degrees, of crimes. Theft is often defined as the unauthorized taking of property from another with the intent to permanently deprive them of it. Within this definition lie two key elements:

1) a taking of someone else's property; and

2) the requisite intent to deprive the victim of the property permanently.

The taking element in a theft typically requires seizing possession of property that belongs to another, and may also involve removing or attempting to remove the property. However, it is the element of intent where most of the complex legal challenges typically arise in theft-related cases.

For example, Alex goes to Patrick's computer store, puts two flash drives in his pocket, and walks out the door intent of keeping them. Alex can be charged with theft. Had Alex stolen Patrck's car from the parking lot, Alex would likely be charged with grand theft.

Is Larceny Different from Theft?

While some states have merged larceny with general theft statutes, other states have kept larceny as its own separate offense. Larceny is an offense that developed through the common law and encompasses behavior that most people consider common theft: the taking of someone else's property without permission. States that still have retained larceny have usually codified the common law definition within the state's penal code.

Most states that still recognize the crime of larceny have codified its elements into their penal code. The exact definition of larceny varies between states and most of them incorporate the following elements in some form. Larceny is:

1) The unlawful taking and carrying away of

2) Someone else's property

3) Without the consent of the owner and with

4) The intent to deprive the owner of the property permanently

The taking element in a theft typically requires seizing possession of property that belongs to another, and may also involve removing or attempting to remove the property. However, it is the element of intent where most of the complex legal challenges typically arise in theft-related cases. In order for a theft to be proven, it often must be shown that the accused acted with the specific intent to take someone else's property and to keep it or otherwise convert it. Some of the most common defenses in theft cases reflect this challenge, as a defendant may claim that they thought certain property was theirs or that they were just borrowing it.

Types and Degrees of Theft

Other key questions in theft cases are: 1) what type of property was stolen; and 2) how much the property was actually worth. This determines the category and/or degree of theft charges that an accused could face. Many jurisdictions create degrees of theft crimes. For example, a third degree theft might be a misdemeanor involving property with a relatively low market value. On the other hand, a first degree theft could be classified as a felony with stolen property valued above a limit established by law. Alternatively, some states categorize their theft (or related offenses) as "petty" or "grand".

Petty Theft

Petty or "petit" thefts typically occur when someone steals property below a certain value specified by law. The amount at which a theft is classified "petty" varies depending on the jurisdiction, but a couple of examples would be property worth less than $500 or $1,000. Petty thefts are usually categorized as relatively minor crimes, also known as misdemeanors.

Grand Theft

Grand theft, on the other hand, occurs when property is stolen that is worth more than the limit for petty theft. Typically the market value for the property at the time it is stolen is used to determine that property's value for purposes of petty or theft charges. Grand theft or comparable violations, such as grand larceny, are classified as felonies in all states. This is the most serious category of offenses and can have severe consequences for individuals convicted of such crimes.

Additional Categories of Theft

Jurisdictions may create additional classes or categories of theft to address a particularly troublesome types of theft. Probably the most well-known example is "grand theft auto", which of course refers to stealing a car. Typically, these more narrowly-categorized types of theft receive harsher punishments than standard, comparable theft-crimes.

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