Theft and Shoplifting Crimes

The crimes of theft and shoplifting defined, plus case examples.

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Theft (or larceny) is an umbrella term that applies to various methods of stealing another's personal property with the "specific intent to permanently deprive them of possession" -- in other words, you're not just borrowing the item. (See General Intent Crimes vs. Specific Intent Crimes.) Theft offenses can range from shoplifting a candy bar, to stealing a car, even to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars. When theft involves large amounts of money, certain types of property, or property that is taken in a certain way, it might be classified as grand theft. Read on to learn more about theft and related crimes.

Theft vs. Embezzlement vs. Fraud

In addition to the standard form of theft -- simply carrying off someone else's property -- two other common forms of theft are:

  • embezzlement, in which an employee or other personal representative diverts money or property intended for the employer or principal to the employee's or personal representative's personal use, and
  • fraud (or false pretenses), which typically occurs when a thief tricks a victim into voluntarily handing over money or property.

Theft: Case Example 1

Facts: Joy Rider sees a new Lexus parked on a residential street. The doors are unlocked and the keys are in the ignition. Never having driven a Lexus, Joy impulsively gets behind the wheel. Joy drives around for about ten minutes and leaves the car a block away from where she found it.

Verdict: Joy is probably not guilty of car theft. To convict Joy of theft, a prosecutor would have to prove that Joy took the car with the specific intent of permanently depriving the car's owner of possession. Since Joy returned the car near to where she found it a short time after taking it, she probably had no such intent. Most states have enacted a less serious crime of joyriding (or operating a vehicle without the owner's consent) to cover these types of situations.

Theft: Case Example 2

Facts: N. V. Uss is furious to learn that his ex-girlfriend has become engaged to another man. One day, Uss sees his ex-girlfriend sitting at a table in a restaurant, showing her engagement ring to a companion. Uss rushes up to the table, grabs the ring, runs outside, and throws the ring into a sewer pipe. The ring is never found.

Verdict: Uss is likely guilty of theft of the ring. The fact that Uss did not keep the ring for himself is irrelevant. The gist of theft is permanently depriving a victim of the property that was stolen. Since Uss's actions suggest that Uss intended his ex-girlfriend to do without the ring permanently, Uss is guilty of theft.

Theft: Case Example 3

Facts: Em Bezzler works behind the counter at an ice cream shop. Over a period of weeks, Em pocketed part of the money that customers gave her. Em hid her activities from the shop owner by failing to ring up some ice cream sales. Finally, the shop owner catches on, fires Em, and starts to call the police. Em immediately offers to return all the money that she took, with interest.

Verdict: Even if Em fully pays back the shop owner, Em is still guilty of embezzlement. Returning stolen property may count in a defendant's favor at the time of sentencing, but it is no defense to a theft or embezzlement charge. Em is guilty of theft because the circumstances suggest that she intended to permanently deprive the shop owner of the money at the time she took it.

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