What Is Theft?

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. The 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.

For example, Alex goes to Patrick’s computer store, puts two flash drives in his pocket, and walks out the door intent of keeping them. Alex can be charged with theft. Had Alex stolen Patrick’s car from the parking lot, Alex would likely be charged with grand theft.

Forms 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.

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