Types of Theft: Petty Theft, Grand Theft, and More

Theft, sometimes called "larceny," has several variations.

Theft is a crime that sometimes goes by the title "larceny." In general, the crime occurs when someone takes and carries away someone else's property without permission and with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of it.

Statutes establish different kinds of theft crimes. Perhaps the most basic distinction between types of theft has to do with petty theft and grand theft.

Petty vs. Grand Theft

Theft can be categorized as grand theft—and therefore deemed a more serious offense —for a variety of reasons. (Depending on the jurisdiction, the crime might be called "first degree" theft.) Laws in many states consider a theft to be grand theft when:

  • The property taken is worth more than a minimum amount, perhaps $500-$1,000 or more.
  • Property is taken directly from a person, but by means other than force or fear. (If force or fear were used, the crime would be robbery.) An example would be picking the pocket of an unsuspecting victim.
  • Particular types of property are taken. For example, the theft of cars and some types of animals is often grand theft regardless of their actual market value.

A theft that does not qualify as a grand theft can be petty theft, or an intermediate offense like second degree theft. Washington, for example, has first degree, second degree, and third degree theft. (See Wash. Rev. Code Ann. §§ 9A.56.030 and following (2018).)

Merchandise Theft: Shoplifting

Some states have laws that set out the crime of shoplifting. Others might prosecute what we think of as shoplifting crimes with broader theft statutes. Either way, at its essence, shoplifting is the crime of taking goods from a store without first paying for them. Here's what a definition of the crime might look like:

  • knowingly taking possession of or carrying away merchandise that was for sail at a place of retail
  • without the merchant's knowledge or consent
  • while intending to keep the merchandise or otherwise permanently deprive the merchant of it
  • without paying the purchase price for it.

Hiding the merchandise can be an element of shoplifting. In fact, it's possible for a state to have a separate crime along the lines of "willful concealment" of merchandise, where that crime occurs by the defendant intentionally concealing the goods while still on the store's premises.

Theft Involving Lost Property

Keeping lost property can qualify as theft if the finder could reasonably return the property to its owner. For example, if Sue is bicycling along a deserted lane and sees a $100 bill floating on a puddle next to the curb, Sue would not be guilty of theft if she kept it. However, the situation is different if, as she's bicycling, she sees Charles drop a $100 bill as he is getting out of the car. Charles is unaware that he has dropped the money and begins to walk away. If Sue rides over, picks up the $100 bill and keeps it, she has likely committed theft. Because Sue knows that the money belongs to Charles and has a reasonable opportunity to return it to him, she commits theft by not attempting to return the money to him. From a legal standpoint, Sue's keeping the money when she could easily return it to its rightful owner is known as a "constructive" taking.

Theft Involving Stolen Property

Buying or keeping stolen property usually translates into a crime popularly known as receiving stolen goods. To convict a defendant of receiving stolen goods, the government normally has to prove that property in the defendant's possession was stolen, and that the defendant acquired the property knowing that it was stolen. The government usually has to rely on circumstantial evidence to try to prove that the defendant had the necessary state-of-mind. Usually, the government's case relies on evidence that would have alerted any reasonable person that the items were hot.

Receiving Stolen Property: Case Example

Facts: Hue is an avid collector of rock-and-roll memorabilia, and he subscribes to a number of computer websites devoted to such items. A few days after a theft of rock-and-roll items from a museum is widely reported on TV and in newspapers in Hue's hometown, Hue receives an email message offering to sell a collection of Beatles memorabilia at a very low price. The seller claims that a quick sale is necessary because the seller has suffered a number of business losses. In fact, the Beatles items were stolen from the museum. Hue buys the Beatles items.

Verdict: Hue could be convicted of receiving stole property, because circumstantial evidence suggests that he knew that he was buying hot merchandise. Hue is an experienced collector, the prices were very low, and the offer came on the heels of a widely reported museum theft.

Getting Legal Help

There are many kinds of theft crimes, including ones not discussed in this article. For information on the law on such a crime in your jurisdiction, consult an attorney. If you face charges, a criminal defense lawyer with experience in the local court system and with cases like yours should be able to explain the relevant law and procedure.

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