Crimes of Theft and Larceny:

Overview of California Theft and Larceny Law

Theft (also called larceny) is a crime against property under the laws of California. To provetheft, a prosecutor must establish the defendant's intent to permanently take or withhold the property owner's possession or right to the property. The prosecutor must prove the defendant's specific intent to steal in order to establish the elements of the crime. Theft can take on many forms depending on the type of property taken. The offense can involve personal property, money, or real property, as well as the value of labor or services.

Theft can take place entirely without the owner's knowledge. However, theft may also occur after the owner entrusted the property to the defendant for a temporary or ongoing purpose. For example, an owner who loaned or rented property to another might become a victim of theft if the other person does not return the property within a specified period of time or after the owner has sent a written request for the property's return.  

  The California Penal Code distinguishes between petty theft and grand theft, which are the two degrees of theft under state law. The degree depends on the value of the property involved in the crime. Grand theft is a more serious offense than petty theft. Section 487 of the Penal Code establishes grand theft when thetheft involves property, money, or labor valued above $950. The Penal Code also includes exceptions to the requirement of a $950 value to elevate a charge from petty theft to grand theft. A prosecutor can charge a defendant with grand theft when the theft involves: over $250 in domestic livestock, farm goods, or aquacultural products; over $950 in labor conferred over a period of twelve months; any property taken from the victim's person; any property that is a car, horse, livestock, or a firearm; and other specified circumstances.

While California state laws historically treated theft and larceny as distinct crimes, modern laws have consolidated the terms under the California Penal Code. Section 490a specifies that laws using the terms "larceny, embezzlement or stealing" should be read as if they contain the term "theft." Accordingly, California theft and larceny laws are one and the same.

Defenses to Theft and Larceny Charges

  • Claim of ownership or right of possession

  • Mistake of fact or law

  • Owner's consent

  • Entrapment

  • Intoxication resulting in a lack of intent to steal

See Larceny Defenses and Theft Defenses for more details.

Penalties and Sentences

  The range of penalties and sentences for theft and larceny depend on the degree of the crime established by the prosecutor. Under California law, petty theft may be punished by a fine of up to $1,000, a term of imprisonment lasting up to six months, or both. For a petty theft of property valued below $50, a prosecutor has the discretion to charge the crime as a misdemeanor or infraction resulting in a fine of $250. However, prior criminal history may affect the prosecutor's recommendations.

  The Penal Code specifies punishment for grand theft as a term of imprisonment in county jail lasting up to one year or felony sentencing permitted by Section 1170(h) of the code. Felony sentencing may range from six months to three years, but prior criminal convictions can increase the severity of the sentence imposed by the state court or require imprisonment in state prison rather than in county jail. To obtain this type of sentence, the prosecutor must establish the circumstances of grand theft according to at least one of the provisions in the Penal Code. 

California Theft / Larceny Laws: Statute

California Penal Code Sections 484-502.9

Identity Theft:

 Someone in California commits identity theft crime when he or she:

- obtains another person’s identifying information to use for any unlawful purpose

- acquires, transfers, or retains another person’s identifying information with the intent to defraud

- sells, transfers, or conveys another person’s identifying information with the intent to defraud

- sells, transfers, or conveys another a person’s identifying information knowing that it will be used for unlawful purposes, or commits mail theft as defined in United States Code, Title 18, Section 1708.

A person’s identifying information can include almost anything a person can use to identify him or herself, such as a date of birth, name, address, tax ID number, employer identification, credit card numbers, and similar types of information. Depending on the circumstances of each case and the criminal history of the person charged with the crime, identity theft is either a misdemeanor or felony offense. (California Penal Code section 530.5)

"Falsely Personating" Another

Anyone who falsely impersonates another person with the intent to obtain money or other types of property also commits a crime in California. Falsely impersonating another is punished as a larceny offense. This crime is either a misdemeanor or felony offense, depending on the value of the stolen property. (California Penal Code section 530)

Elder or Dependent Adults

Someone who commits identity theft against an elderly or disabled adult in California faces more significant penalties. Additionally, caretakers who are responsible for caring for an elderly person or dependent adult face tougher penalties if they commit identity theft against that person. (California Penal Code section 368)


Depending on the circumstances of the case and the particular crimes involved, someone convicted of identity theft in California faces significant potential penalties.

For a better understanding of how California categorizes different crimes read California Felony Crimes by Class and Sentences and California Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences.

  Incarceration and Fines. Jail or prison sentences for identity theft crimes can differ significantly. For example, someone convicted of using another person’s personal identifying information for an unlawful purpose faces a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year in a county jail. However, a caretaker who commits identity theft against an elderly patient where the value of the stolen property exceeds $950, faces up to four years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.

Probation. Instead of, or in addition to, sentencing someone convicted of identity theft to pay a fine or serve jail or prison time, a court can also order someone to serve a period of probation. Probation lasts at least one year, though sentences of several years or more are common. During that time the probationer will have to comply with court and probation conditions, such as regularly meeting with a probation officer, paying all court costs and fines, not associating with known criminals, and numerous other requirements.

Restitution. Anytime an identity theft results in a victim or victims losing money or otherwise suffering a financial loss, the court will also order restitution as part of any sentence. Restitution payments are designed to compensate victims for the losses they suffer. The amount a person convicted of identity theft has to pay in restitution will differ from case to case.

For a Complete List of Crimes Against Property: