The Difference Between Grand Theft and Petty Theft

(Page 2 of 2 of Theft and Shoplifting Crimes)

Grand theft is the equivalent of first degree theft. Theft can be categorized as grand theft -- and therefore deemed a more serious offense -- for a variety of reasons. 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 depending on the state.
  • 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 is petty, or second degree, theft.

Theft Involving Lost or Stolen Property

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, it's different if, as she's bicycling, Sue sees Charles drop a $100 bill as Charles 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, Sue has committed theft. Since Sue knows that the money belongs to Charles, and she has a reasonable opportunity to return it to him, Sue commits theft by not attempting to return the money to Charles. From a legal standpoint, Sue's keeping the money when she could easily return it to its rightful owner is what is known as a "constructive" taking.

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 has to prove that property in the defendant's possession was stolen, and that the defendant acquired the property knowing that it was stolen. As is typical when a statute requires proof of knowledge and other state of mind elements, the government usually has to rely on circumstantial evidence to try to prove a defendant's knowledge that property had been stolen. 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: Hu Gnu 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 Hu's hometown, Hu 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. Hu buys the Beatles items.

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

Finding a Good Criminal Law Attorney

One good way to find a criminal defense lawyer is to ask friends, acquaintances, or other lawyers for referrals -- and then interview the candidates. In addition, Nolo provides a personalized Lawyer Directory with information about each lawyer's experience, education, and fees, and perhaps most importantly, the lawyer's general philosophy of practicing law. By using Nolo's directory, you can narrow down candidates before calling them for a phone or face-to-face interview.

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