Theft is a criminal act that involves depriving a person of his property. The legal term theft is a very broad term in that it applies to a wide range of crimes, all of which consist of taking of someone’s property, with the intent of permanently depriving him of it. To explore this concept, consider the following theft definition.

Definition of Theft


  1. The act of stealing.
  2. The act of wrongfully taking and carrying away the property of another person with the intent of depriving the rightful owner of the possession.


Before 900 A.D.      Old English thīefth

What is Theft

Theft is a term used to describe a crime that involves taking a person’s property without his consent. In the law, the term theft encompasses more than one act, but in order for an action to be considered theft, two key elements must be met. These include:

  1. Taking property from its rightful owner; and
  2. Having the intent to deprive the rightful owner of the property permanently.

Taking a person’s property involves taking possession or control of property that rightfully belongs to someone else. However, attempting to take someone else’s property can also be considered theft, if the perpetrator’s intent was to deprive the individual of his property. The element of intent is often the most challenging legal question in theft cases, as defendants often claim they thought the property was theirs to begin with, or that they were just borrowing the property.

Types of Theft

While theft pertains the taking the property of another with the intention of depriving the owner of the property, there are several types of theft that may be charged, including:

  • Robbery – the taking of another person’s property by the use of violence, threats, or intimidation
  • Embezzlement – the theft of money, property, or other assets by a person who is in a position of trust or responsibility over the assets
  • Burglary – unlawful entry into any structure for the purpose of committing a crime (whether or not anything was stolen)
  • Identify theft – the theft and fraudulent use of a person’s personal identifying information
  • Intellectual property theft – theft of material that is copyrighted, the theft of trade secrets, and trademark violations.

Theft can also be broken down into two major categories, petty theft and grand theft, which depend on the value of the property stolen. Different types of theft entail different types of punishments. For example, petty theft is punished less severely than robbery, which is also considered a violent crime.

Petty Theft

Petty theft refers to the theft of some item that has a relatively low value. Each state defines the monetary value that divides petty theft from grand theft, but commonly petty theft includes values up to $500 dollars. Petty theft is most commonly seen in shoplifting, and from places in which the defendant is legally on the property. If, however, the defendant was not authorized to be on the property from which the item was stolen, he is likely to face burglary charges, rather than petty theft.

For example:

While shopping in a local drugstore, Jennifer slides two tubes of lipstick into her purse. Because the combined value of the items is only $24, Jennifer has committed petty theft.

If, on the other hand, Jennifer used her key to go back into the office at which she works after hours to take home two reams of paper, she may be charged with burglary instead.

Other acts that may be charged as petty theft include:

  • Switching prices tags at a store, in an effort to pay less for an item
  • Switching packages at a store, in an effort to pay less for an item
  • Sneaking into a theater to view a movie without paying admission
  • Skipping out on the bill after eating at a restaurant

Grand Theft

Grand theft occurs when someone steals property that is valued above the statutory limit in the jurisdiction for petty theft. Theft may be charged as grand theft, regardless of the property’s value, if the item was taken directly, physically, from its rightful owner, such as pickpocketing. Theft of certain specified types of property, such as cars and some livestock, is considered grand theft as well.

For example:

Gloria, while shopping at the mall, manages to slip a few pieces of jewelry into her large purse, and leaves without paying for them. The combined value of the items is over $2,000. If she is caught, she could be charged with grand theft.

Grand Theft Auto

Grand Theft Auto is the crime of stealing of an automobile or other type of vehicle, such as a motorhome, or a motorcycle. Grand theft auto is a felony, and is punishable by time in prison. The same principles that apply to all theft crimes apply to grand theft auto. To successfully prosecute an individual for grand theft auto, the prosecution must prove that the perpetrator took the vehicle with the intent of depriving the rightful owner of its possession permanently.

When is Theft a Felony

How each state categorizes theft as a felony or misdemeanor is dependent on the laws of the jurisdiction in which the crime occurred. Most states categorize theft according to the value of the property stolen, and other factors, such as whether there was violence involved. On average, states have set the dividing value between felony and misdemeanor theft is between $500 and $1000 dollars. Anything over the specified amount automatically makes the theft a felony. For example, in a state in which theft of property valued at $500 or more is a felony, if Bob steals tools worth $300 from his neighbor, he is guilty of misdemeanor theft. If the value of the stolen tools is $700, Bob faces felony theft charges.

Many states also specify that the theft of certain types of property is a felony, regardless of the item’s value. In many jurisdictions, theft of a car, boat, or firearm results in an automatic felony charge. For example, if Jim steals a gun from his friend, the value of which is only $250, he will still face a felony charge.

If a perpetrator has been charged with theft multiple times, he may also be charged with a felony in some jurisdictions, even if the property value does not meet the felony limit. For instance, Samantha has been convicted twice of misdemeanor theft charges. When she steals a $30 dollar necklace from a local department store, she may face felony charges, even though the value of the necklace was low, as this is her third offense.

Degrees of Theft

In addition to differentiating between felony and misdemeanor classes of theft, most states also specify different degrees in regards to felony theft. For example, if a state has four levels of felony theft, first-degree theft is the least serious, and fourth-degree is the most serious. Degrees of theft are categorized depending on the value of the property. For instance, first-degree theft may apply to property valued between $1,000 and $5,000, and fourth-degree may be anything valued over $100,000.

Penalties for Theft

The penalties for theft vary greatly, depending on the jurisdiction in which the crime is committed, the value of the property taken, and other factors surrounding the act of theft itself. Penalties for theft at a misdemeanor level often include fines, restitution, and a year or less in jail. Probation, in addition to fines and restitution, is a common punishment handed out for first time or petty offenders. Penalties for felony theft, however, may include a higher fine, restitution, and incarceration in the state prison for a year or more. Repeat offenders risk being incarcerated for as much as 20 years.

Real Life Cases of Theft

Theft occurs on a daily basis in every corner of the U.S. From children plying their hands at shoplifting, to individuals committing armed robbery, police and prosecutors have their hands full investigating these crimes, and bringing those responsible to justice.

Popular Actress Commits Grand Theft

In 2011, actress Lindsay Lohan faced a judge on a felony charge for theft, after a Venice jewelry store’s surveillance system caught her stealing a gold necklace valued at $2,500. Although paparazzi photos taken after her jewelry store appearance show Lohan wearing the heisted necklace, she pled not guilty to the crime. At the time Lohan was charged with felony grand theft, she was on probation for a DUI case.

While the penalties for theft of this value can be serious, Lohan was ultimately sentenced to only 120 days in jail for the crime, and 120 days for violating her probation. Lohan was allowed to serve both sentences concurrently. In addition, because of overcrowding in the Los Angeles county jail, however, she would spend only a small part of that time actually confined. In addition to the jail sentence, Lohan was placed on 3 years’ probation, and ordered to attend a shoplifter’s offender program.

Cupid Commits Identity Theft and Grand Larceny

While U.S. Army Captain Terra Melson was on active duty in Iraq in 2006, her bank account was raided by a thief she would never have suspected: a man named Cupid, who was the New Jersey Secretary of State’s chief of staff. Investigators say that Malik Cupid, Captain Melson’s former lover, gained access to her AOL account, and intercepted her email messages. He used these messages to gain access to Capt. Melson’s bank account, and began funneling money into a bank account in his own name. Although the total amount stolen totaled only $1,400 over a period of about 5 months, he was charged with four counts of felony grand larceny and identity theft.

Cupid entered into a plea agreement pled guilty to one felony count of eavesdropping, and one misdemeanor count of eavesdropping. In exchange, the prosecution dropped the felony theft charges, and agreed to a sentence of one year probation. If he violates his probation, Cupid could serve the maximum sentence of four years in prison.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony; generally those punishable by a fine, probation, community service, or imprisonment of less than one year.

Restitution – The restoration of rights or property previously taken away or surrendered; reparation made by giving compensation for loss or injury caused by wrongdoing.