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Petty Theft Law & Defense
PC 488 & 490.1(a)

The law on the crime of petty theft, also called petite larceny is found at California penal code sections 484, 488 and 490.1(a).

In order for the district attorney to prove that the defendant is guilty of petty theft under PC 484 or 488, the district attorneys will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant took property or money with a value less than $950 from another person or business with the intent to never return the property or money.

Petty Theft v. Grand Theft: Petty theft charged under PC 484 or 488 is distinguished from grand theft by value. Any theft under $950 dollars is considered petty theft and is usually charged under PC 484 or 488. Grand theft is usually charged under California penal code section 484(a) or 487, or some other penal code section depending on the items that were stolen and how the items were stolen.

Shoplifting v. Petty Theft: When petty theft is from a commercial store and the value of the item stolen is under fifty dollar ($50) the charge is filed under PC 490.1(a), PC 484/490.1(a), or PC 459.5 (Shoplifting).

Property, for purposes of PC 488 can be any tangible item like clothing, books, cells phones, etc. Money can be actual cash or some form of credit such as a credit cards or gift cards. However, theft of credit cards is usually charged as acquiring credit card or bank card without permission (PC 484e).


To take property from another person means that the defendant actually physically took the property or money from another person, as opposed to converting the property by fraud or embezzlement.

For example, if the defendant used some form of misrepresentation to deceive a person into giving the defendant the victim's money then the defendant would not be charged with petty theft, but rather, theft by false pretenses (PC 532) because the defendant willfully gave the defendant the money.


Also, if the defendant was already in possession of money or property that belonged to another person, but the defendant converted the money or property to his or her personal use without permission and with having the intent to never return the property or money, then the defendant would not be charged with petty theft, but rather the crime of embezzlement, because the defendant did not physically take the property from the victim.


Also, petty theft is not usually charged where the defendant enters a store to commit a theft of property with a value less than $950. Under this circumstance the defendant is usually charged with commercial burglary (PC 459). Also, where the defendant uses violent force, or threats of violent force, against a person to commit theft of any amount the criminal charge is robbery.

Punishment & Sentence

The crime of petty theft is charged as a misdemeanor in California. If the defendant is found guilty of petty theft under PC 484(A) or 488, he or she may face up to 180 days in the county jail.

Probation Sentence: It is not uncommon that a defendant convicted of petty theft under PC 484(a) or 488 will receive probation without jail. Or, if jail is required, the defendant will usually be afforded the opportunity to serve the jail sentence by electronic monitoring (house arrest) or work release. Whether or not a probation sentence without jail is available in any particular petty theft case depends largely on the defendant's criminal history and the facts of the case.

Moral Turpitude Crime: PC 484(a) and 488 are considered crimes of moral turpitude, which means the crimes are considered morally wrong. Crimes of moral turpitude carry special punishments for immigrants and licensed professionals (i.e. doctors, lawyers, dentists, nurses, etc.).

Collateral Punishment

In addition to any actual jail time that the defendant may face, if convicted of petty theft charges filed under PC 484(a) or 488, the defendant will also face penalty fines, restitution to victims, restraining orders, harsh probation terms, and more.

Defense to Petty Theft

Common defenses to a criminal charge of petty theft include, insufficient evidence to prove guilt, insanity, statute of limitations (one year from the date of the alleged petty theft), mistake of fact, coerced confessions, consent, illegal search and seizure and more.

Note: Shopkeepers and store owners have a right to stop a suspected shoplifter to conduct a reasonable investigation related to the belief that the defendant committed shoplifting. The seizure of the defendant must be reasonable in scope place, and, time in order to be valid. If the detention is not reasonable under the circumstances than the defendant's rights may have been violated and the any evidence of theft may be suppressed (not used in court).


To learn more about California petty theft crimes, or penal codes 484(a) and 488, contact our criminal defense attorneys today for a free and private consultation. Our criminal attorneys dedicate 100% of their practice to criminal defense and our office available every day to answer all your questions. Call today!


Quick Legal Reference​

Crime: Petty Theft under Fifty Dollars ($50)

Code: PC 490.1(a) (CalCrim No. 2916)

Wobbler: Yes. PC 490.1(a) is a wobbler crime. PC 490.1(a) is charged as an infraction or as a misdemeanor.


Incarceration: ​PC 490.1(a) Misdemeanor jail sentence up to 180 days (no jail for infraction PC 490.1(a)).

Probation: Probation may be available in PC 490.1(a) cases (assuming that other crimes or enhancements that might bar a probation sentence are not present). Whether or not a probation sentence is offered by the District Attorney, or granted by the court, depends on several factors, including the defendant's criminal history and the facts of the case.​

Work Release or House Arrest: In some cases, a probation sentence for a misdemeanor PC 490.1(a) can include actual in-custody county jail, house arrest (electronic monitoring), or work release (or some combination of these penalties); however, most in-custody jail sentence orders that are required as a terms of probation are much shorter than the maximum jail sentence.

Strike: PC 490.1(a) is not a strike offense listed in California's Three Strikes law.

Credits: 50% good conduct credits available.

CIMT: PC 490.1(a) is likely a crime involving moral turpitude, which means that an arrest or conviction could lead to the following:

  • Immigration problems

  • Professional Licensing problems

  • Impeachment on credibility


Bail: $5,000 (San Bernardino County)

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