What is Petty Larceny? A Guide to Understanding Your Rights

Larceny is the most common property crime in America. Occurring more than 5.5 million times each year, petty larceny accounts for almost three-quarters of all property crimes. 

But what is petty larceny? Who can be accused of it and what do they face if convicted? Keep reading now to get the facts you need to know. 

What Is Petty Larceny?

Petty larceny, also spelled petit larceny, is the unlawful taking of property by one party from another party without the intention to return it. This covers several different types of property theft, including:

  • Shoplifting
  • Embezzling
  • Pickpocketing
  • Any other unlawful taking of money or property 

Petty larceny is generally a misdemeanor crime. Grand larceny is a felony. The difference between the two lies in the value of the money or property stolen. 

Each state sets its own limit as to when larceny qualifies as petty or grand. For example, in Michigan, the line is set at $200. Thefts below that amount are petty larceny and thefts of money or property valued at $201 or more are grand larceny. 

Larceny is not the same as burglary. Burglary involves breaking and entering or unlawfully being in a home, business, or other location. Larceny is theft perpetrated by someone with a lawful reason to be where the theft occurs. 

For example, an employee skimming money from a till at their workplace is legally allowed to be there but is taking money to which they are not entitled. That would qualify as larceny. Someone breaking into the same workplace after hours and stealing money would be guilty of burglary. 

Federal Charges

Most thefts are charged under state law, but it is possible to be charged with larceny at the federal level. Most of these cases involve the theft of public property. These cases are somewhat rare but are worth being aware of as unique rules can apply. 

Determining Petty Larceny 

It is important to be aware that the lines determining what is petty larceny and what is grand larceny can vary. The dollar amounts in question can change from state to state. They also differ depending on the items stolen. 

Virginia’s laws are a perfect example. If you pickpocket money or possessions worth $5 or less from a person, the crime is petty larceny. If you commit the same crime but the value of the money or goods taken is more than $5, you will be charged with felony grand larceny.  

If you steal property from a place in Virginia by shoplifting, the crime is petty larceny if the value of the goods taken is below $500. Shoplifting property worth $500 or more is felony grand larceny. 

What Are the Penalties for Petty Larceny?

The exact penalties for petty larceny can vary but in most states the potential consequences include:

  • Jail time
  • Hefty fines
  • Community service
  • Probation
  • Paying restitution to the lawful owner of the stolen property

First-time and youth offenders may qualify for diversionary programs, but this option is not always available.

Importantly, petty larceny also goes on one’s permanent criminal record. This can have negative long-term impacts on one’s life in many ways. First-line consequences such as serving jail time can also lead to other repercussions, such as:

  • Loss of employment and income
  • Difficulty securing new employment 
  • Estrangement from friends and family
  • Loss of support networks
  • Loss of housing and financial stability

Fighting a Petty Larceny Charge

Under most larceny laws, prosecutors must be able to show:

  • That the items in question were taken without permission from the owner
  • That the items were physically removed from the person or property  
  • That the person taking the items had no intent to return them
  • That the items in question were taken by the accused and not some other party

As a result, these are the things that attorneys tend to target when fighting a petty larceny charge. Thus, they may argue that their clients:

  • Thought the item(s) taken belonged to them
  • Believed they had the owner’s permission to take the item
  • Were forced to take the item against their will
  • Are not in fact the person who took the item

In rare cases, they may also argue that their clients were entrapped into taking the items in question. 

What to Do if You Are Accused of Petty Larceny  

Many Americans arrested for common infractions such as shoplifting are initially confused. “What is larceny?” they wonder. “What is grand larceny and how is it different from petty larceny?”

Even those who know the difference between petty larceny and grand larceny, however, can underestimate the importance of getting a good attorney to help them fight the charges against them. Too many arrestees fail to secure an attorney because:

  • They do not realize it is possible to successfully fight the charges
  • They do not understand the full scope of the consequences they are facing 
  • They don’t believe they can afford an attorney

In reality, a good attorney can often succeed in getting charges dropped or reduced.

In all cases, petty larceny convictions carry severe consequences. It is always worth arrestees’ time and effort to fight these charges. Doing so can save them a lifetime worth of difficulties. 

Affording an Attorney

Getting an attorney is often far for affordable than accused individuals believe. First, many lawyers charge set fees for defending clients against common charges. This means that arrestees can go in with a clear understanding of the costs and without worry about ballooning legal bills.

Second, most firms offer some form of payment plan. This enables clients to pay their bills in small installments over time, putting representation within reach of lower-income or disadvantaged individuals. 

Finally, it is important for arrestees to view attorney fees realistically. Individuals represented by an attorney are far more likely to achieve positive outcomes.

Arrestees who do not invest in a lawyer can end up facing fines and restitution payments that cost more than an attorney’s services would have. They will also be saddled with the burden of a criminal record for the rest of their lives. 

Hiring an attorney is always the better choice. 

Understanding Your Rights 

What is petty larceny? It’s a criminal charge that sounds small but carries big consequences. Knowing how to handle the situation if you are charged with larceny can save you from life-long repercussions. Learn more about your rights and making great decisions for your life and business by browsing our other great articles on legal topics today.