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Petty Theft & Other Theft Laws

Theft is a crime that runs the gamut in terms of the seriousness of charges that an offender may face, and the severity of punishment that might be handed down. Stealing a $25 shirt from a clothing store would probably be charged as petty theft, while stealing $125,000 in jewelry will prompt a high-level felony theft charge.

This article provides information on the crime of petty theft, including possible defenses, and factors that will affect the severity of a theft charge. At the end of this article, you’ll find links to articles that give province-specific information on the crime of petty theft and penalties.

What Is Petty Theft?

Theft, also known as larceny, is the taking of someone else’s property without consent and with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of that property. Petty theft is charged when the value of the item taken is less than a specified amount, such as $500. When items of merchandise are taken from a shop or store, the theft is commonly referred to as “shoplifting,” which is simply a type of petty theft.

In a theft case (as in any criminal case), the prosecuting attorney must prove all elements of the offense that the accused person (the defendant) is charged with committing. Theft cases involve the following elements:

  • Ownership. The victim of the crime must have a “possessory interest” in the item taken. For example, if someone takes your jacket from your seat at the ballgame, the crime has been committed against you because you own the jacket. But if someone else’s jacket was placed on your seat and then disappeared, the victim would be the jacket’s owner, not you. The prosecution would have to produce the jacket’s owner in court in order to successfully prosecute the accused thief.
  • Wrongful taking. The owner must not have given consent to the taking. Consent that is obtained by deceit or trick is not effective. For example, a gas station owner who lets a motorist borrow his tools, relying on the promise that the motorist will bring them right back, has not given consent if the motorist intended all along to keep the tools.
  • Carried away. The items must have been taken away, even just a short distance. The slightest movement is enough, as is exercising control over the property, as when a person slips a store item under another that’s already been paid for.
  • Intent to permanently deprive. At the time the property is taken, the accused must have intended to keep it. The owner need not have been permanently deprived; it’s the intent that this will happen at the time of the taking that’s important. Even taking property and dealing with it in a way that creates a substantial risk of permanent loss will suffice.

If the prosecution does not have evidence to support each of these elements, the crime should not be charged. And unless the judge or jury can conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the elements have been proven, the defendant is entitled to an acquittal.

Defenses to Theft

The statutory definition of theft is sometimes the first place a criminal defense attorney will look in considering possible defenses to a theft charge. As mentioned above, if any required element of a theft offense is missing or can’t be proved, the charges may not stick (or may at least be reduced). So, a criminal defense attorney will look for possible defenses based on the circumstances of the case and the province’s definition of theft. Some questions that might be raised include:

  • Did the offender actually take the property?
  • Did the offender believe the property was theirs at the time it was taken, or at least have a reasonable belief that they were entitled to take possession of the property?
  • Did the offender intend to eventually return the property?

Other common criminal defenses that might be relevant to a theft charge include entrapment and an alibi defense.

Punishment for Theft

Potential punishment (or sentencing) for a theft offense will depend on a number of factors related both to the offense and the defendant’s criminal history. See the province-specific links below for details, but in general, after a theft conviction a judge may order one or more of the following at sentencing:

  • Jail or Prison Time
  • Fines
  • Community service
  • Probation
  • Diversion program (usually for first offenders only)

The judge may be authorized by statute to order additional penalties, like payment of restitution to the victim of the theft (which means reimbursing the victim for the dollar value of the property stolen) or an additional penalty under a formula that considers the value of the property stolen (such as a penalty not to exceed four times the value of the property stolen).