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. In this section, you can find a broad overview of theft, as well as a breakdown of its elements. Some common defenses to theft charges are also included here, plus a general look at the range penalties and sentences faced by offenders.

Theft/Larceny in Brief

Theft/larceny is typically defined as the taking of almost anything of value without the consent of the owner, with the intent to permanently deprive him or her of the value of the property taken. Most states recognize degrees of theft, such as “grand” or “petty,” which usually relate to the value of the property taken.

For example, Dan goes to Victor’s music store, puts two CDs in his pocket, and walks out the door. Dan can be charged with theft/larceny. Had Dan stolen Victor’s car from the parking lot, Dan would likely be charged with grand theft/larceny.

Theft Overview

Theft is the classic crime against property, and is typically understood to mean the taking of property from another without their consent. Sometimes the term larceny is used interchangeably with theft, but theft is considered a broader term, encompassing a variety of property offenses ranging from larceny to embezzlement.

Theft: Definition and Elements

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. 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.

Theft Defenses

There are a number of defenses that may apply in theft cases. Assuming that a taking of property by the individual accused actually did occur, here are a few of the more typical defenses that may apply.

Claim of Right or Ownership of Property

An individual who is accused of stealing property may have a valid defense if they are able to establish that they had a good faith belief the property they took was theirs or that they had a valid claim to it. Although a somewhat straightforward defense, it is not as simple as just claiming “I thought it was mine”. Typically a defendant will need to provide evidence supporting their claim.


It may be possible to successfully defend theft charges if a defendant is able to establish that he or she was intoxicated at the time the alleged theft occurred. Regardless of the type of intoxication, alcohol, chemicals or drugs, if an individual was unable to form the required intent to steal (for example, in their intoxicated state, they mistakenly thought an item belonged to them), they may have a viable intoxication defense.

Return of Property as a Defense

People often wonder if returning stolen property can provide a defense to theft or prevent charges from being brought in the first place. Returning stolen property generally does not provide a defense to a charge of theft. Still, doing so can definitely paint a more sympathetic picture to a prosecutor for purposes of a possible plea deal, and also may help with reducing the penalties in a case.

A different and viable defense may exist, however, if a defendant is able to establish they had the intent to return the property at the time it was taken and actually could do so. It is fairly common to defend theft charges by claiming the property was just being “borrowed”.


The defense of entrapment applies when an individual commits a crime, but was induced to do so by someone in order to prosecute the target. In a theft case, the entrapment defense could apply if the idea or intent to steal came from the entrapping person, the entrapment victim is lured into committing the theft, all with the goal of apprehending and prosecuting the targeted individual.

Theft Penalties and Sentencing

The penalties and sentences for theft can range from the minor to the severe, with a number of factors coming into play.

First and foremost, the type and value of property stolen will typically determine whether minor (misdemeanor) or major (felony) charges are brought. 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 of less than a year. However, even in cases of petty theft, there can still be major penalties in states with applicable recidivist or repeat offender sentencing laws.

For cases involving more valuable stolen property, specifically property whose value exceeds the limit discussed above, an individual may face charges of “grand theft”, which is a felony. Felony charges are very serious and typically result in fines, restitution, and jail time. Other categories of theft, such as grand theft auto, may also have separate laws which apply with specific charges and heightened penalties.

Regardless of the type of theft that is 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 may receive relatively lighter penalties. 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.

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.