Theft Sentencing and Penalties

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

The penalties and sentences for theft can range from the minor to the severe, with a number of factors coming into play. These factors, even if they may appear insignificant, could mean the difference between a small fine or several years in prison and difficulties obtaining jobs in the future.

Read on to learn more about theft sentencing and penalties and how they might apply to different situations.

The Taking of Property of Another

Theft is the taking of the property of another with the intention of permanently removing it from the other person. The crime of theft is broken down into broad categories, that describe the severity of the crime for the purpose theft sentencing. These categories include:

  • Petty theft
  • Grand theft
  • Federal grand theft

Additional elements that can determine sentence length are the type of theft that occurred and the type of property stolen. Theft can be called by many names including burglary, larceny, embezzlement, looting, robbery, or shoplifting. Each of these terms describe a particular kind of theft may have special state laws that will often make a sentence for theft more severe.

Property Value and Severity of Theft Penalties

Whether theft is classified as petty, grand or grand felony is determined by the dollar amount of the property stolen. The threshold dollar amount will typically determine whether minor (misdemeanor) or major (felony) charges are brought.

Petty Theft

In cases where property of relatively low value is stolen, petty or petit theft charges may result. States often place a specific dollar figure, such as $500 or $1,000, as the upper limit for petty theft charges. These charges are typically misdemeanors that carry fines or relatively short jail times typically less than six months, but certainly less than one year.

Grand Theft

For cases involving more valuable stolen property, specifically property whose value exceeds the limit discussed above, an individual may face charges of "grand theft". Grand theft can be a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances of the theft. Prosecutors have leeway to consider things like the type of property stolen, the manner in which the theft occurred, previous criminal history, and concurrent charges. The difference is a misdemeanor will have a maximum jail time of less than one year, while a felony will have a minimum jail time of more than one year in a state prison.

Grand Felony Theft

The determination that a crime is grand theft felony, typically means that the threshold dollar amount or the type of property has been met or exceeded. The specific dollar amount to be exceeded is state specific. For instance, Virginia has a threshold of $200 while Arizona has a $1000 divide between a misdemeanor and a felony. Felony charges are more serious and typically result in fines, restitution, and jail time.

Felony Theft Penalties: Type of Property

Regardless of dollar amount, if certain types of property are stolen, such as a vehicle or firearm it is considered a felony, with more severe penalties. Beyond vehicles and firearms, certain states consider the theft of additional categories of special items to be felonies. For instance, Kentucky considers the theft of anhydrous ammonia, used in the manufacturing of methamphetamines, to be a felony. And New York treats as a felony the theft of such items as a public record, a secret scientific material, and credit or debit card. In Washington, it is a felony to steal a search and rescue dog on duty. These and other special categories or property often have separate laws which apply with specific charges and heightened penalties.

Felony Theft Penalties: Manner of Theft

If the manner of theft includes a violent element such as ripping a purse from the hands of a woman, it will be a felony. States such as Missouri and Alaska state explicitly that physically taking property from a person is a felony.

Theft Sentencing: Additional Factors

Even in cases of petty theft, there can still be major penalties in states with applicable recidivist or repeat offender sentencing laws, also referred to as "Three Strikes" laws. Regardless of the type of theft charged, an offender's history of theft or related crimes has a significant effect on sentencing, with repeat offenders receiving less leniency, while first time offenders often receive relatively lighter penalties for the same crime. A defendant's criminal history that is unrelated to theft can also play a factor at sentencing, as judges generally have sizeable discretion with sentencing decisions. On the flip side, judges also may consider mitigating (or sympathetic) circumstances when coming up with a punishment for a crime.

Other Long-Term Consequences

Most types of theft are classified by law as crimes of "moral turpitude." Having one of these types of offenses on your record can carry significant consequences for offenders. One of the primary impacts is felt in a former convict's ability to find employment. Convictions for crimes of moral turpitude, particularly felonies, may be discovered in background checks or job applications and could disqualify job applicants. Additionally, resident aliens in the country may face deportation or other immigration consequences upon conviction for a crime of moral turpitude.

Questions About Theft Sentencing and Penalties? Ask an Attorney

Theft sentencing and penalties can have a significant impact on your life even for apparently minor crimes. Depending on your criminal history and your jurisdiction, even the theft of a candy bar could have a disproportionate impact on your future. If you've been charged with theft, you may want to contact a criminal defense attorney who will be there to fight for the best outcome in your case, whether it be an acquittal or a plea bargain.

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