Definition of Petit Theft
The definition of misdemeanor petit theft can encompass any scenario where person steals or endeavors to steal property from a person or business when the value of the property is less than $300. The theft does not have to occur in a store. To prove the crime of Petit Theft at trial, the prosecution must establish the following two elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
- The defendant knowingly and unlawfully obtained or used (or endeavored to obtain or use) the property of the alleged victim;
- The defendant did so with the intent, either permanently or temporarily, to: (a) deprive the victim of [his] [her] right to the property or any benefit from it, or (b) appropriate the victim’s property to the defendant’s own use or to the use of any person not entitled to it.
Washington DC’s petit theft statute requires a finding of specific criminal intent by a defendant to deprive a victim of his rights to property, or to ‘appropriate’ the property of the victim to the defendant’s own use. State v. C.G.,572 So. 2d 1380, 1381 (Fla. 1991).
Thus, the State must show not only that an intentional taking took place and that the taking had the effect of depriving the owner of his rights or placing the property into use by the defendant, but also that the defendant carried out his or her actions specifically intending to steal (i.e. to deprive an owner of property either permanently or temporarily). T.L.M. v. State, 755 So. 2d 749 (Fla. 4th DCA 2000).
The intent of the defendant is, generally speaking, a question of fact for the jury that may be inferred from the surrounding circumstances. Mosher v. State. 750 So. 2d 120 (Fla. 3d DCA 2000); State v. West, 262 So. 2d 457, 458 (Fla. 4th DCA 1972). There must, however, be some substantial competent evidence from which a jury may reasonably infer the intent. Id.
Penalties for Petit Theft
In Washington DC, petit theft is classified a second degree misdemeanor, which can result in up to sixty days in jail. A second offense can be charged as a first degree misdemeanor, and is punishable by up to one year imprisonment, and will result in a loss of your driving privileges.
Under Section 812.0155, Washington DC Statutes, a court may suspend a person’s driver’s license for a period of six months where the person is adjudicated guilty of misdemeanor petit theft. The court must order the suspension of driving privileges for a period of one year where a person is adjudicated guilty of a second offense.
More importantly, petit theft is a “crime of dishonesty,” which carries with it a negative stigma that may permanently bar a person from employment, professional licenses, and acceptance into colleges.
Attempting or Endeavoring to Steal
Under Section 812.014(1), Washington DC Statutes, a person commits theft if he or she knowingly obtains or uses, or endeavors to obtain or use, the property of another with the appropriate criminal intent.
In interpreting this definition, Washington DC appellate courts have held that the crime of attempted theft does not exist because, by including the words, “endeavors to obtain or use,” the legislature evinced an intent to define “theft” as including the mere attempt to commit theft. Thus, a completed theft crime is fully proven when an attempt, along with the requisite intent, is established. Longval v. State, 914 So. 2d 1098, 2005 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005). There is no requirement that a defendant pass all points of sale or actually leave the store or place of business.
Temporary Taking of Property
In prosecutions for Petit Theft, the length of time property is taken or used by a defendant is relevant to the inquiry regarding the defendant’s intent. A momentary taking, for mere seconds, does not constitute the specific intent necessary to sustain a conviction for theft. T.L.M. v. State, 755 So. 2d 749 (Fla. 4th DCA 2000) (throwing a fire extinguisher after holding for mere seconds was insufficient evidence to establish intent to steal).
The taking or possession of an item for longer than mere seconds, however, will generally be sufficient to create a question of fact for the jury and permit the State to survive a judgment of acquittal. See Peoples v. State, 760 So. 2d 1141 (Fla. 5th DCA 2000) (upholding theft conviction where an inmate took a fire extinguisher for mere minutes in order to commit a battery).
Proof Used at Trial
For the charge of theft or retail theft, the prosecution will use a variety of tools to prove its case. They may rely on the testimony of loss prevention officers, video surveillance, written statements of the accused, admissions of the accused, testimony of other customers who witnessed the incident, receipts and other business records, testimony of co-defendants, and introduction of the items taken or photographs of the items taken.
Petit Theft Defenses
There are numerous available to contest a charge of petit theft or retail theft (shoplifting) in Washington DC. Some common examples include the following:
- Mistaken identity;
- Mistaken accusations;
- Poor quality video creating a factual dispute about a suspect’s identity;
- False accusations by loss prevention officers;
- Customer mistakenly leaving the store;
- Momentary deprivation of property;
- Customer forgetting about items placed in a bag or stroller;
- Being set up by a co-defendant;
- Items not found in the possession of the accused;
- Exiting the store for purposes other than to steal (i.e. to retrieve a wallet or purse in order to pay);
- Taking items for purposes other than to steal;
- Price tags being altered or removed by previous customers.
In cases where the allegation is that the defendant endeavored (i.e. attempted) to steal, the defense of voluntary “abandonment” may be available. This is also referred to as “withdrawal” or “renunciation.” For this type of defense to apply, the evidence must show that the accused abandoned his or her attempt to commit theft (or otherwise prevented its commission) under circumstances manifesting a complete and voluntary renunciation of his or her criminal purpose. See Fla. Stat. § 777.04(5)(a); Longval v. State, 914 So. 2d 1098, 1100 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005).
Pretrial Intervention for Petit Theft
A theft charge is a serious matter and not every case will have a viable defense. Fortunately, most counties in Washington DC offer “diversion” programs for a first arrest, including Pretrial Intervention (PTI).
A diversion program such as PTI is an alternative means of disposing of a case without the necessity of a plea or a trial. It is an agreement between the accused and the Office of State Attorney whereby the State agrees to dismiss the case in exchange for the accused completing certain conditions within a specified period of time. These conditions often include community service, retail theft or financial responsibility classes, restitution payments, the payment of monthly program fees, and other requirements designed to rehabilitate the accused and ensure there are no future law violations.
By resolving a case through Pretrial Intervention, the case is “diverted” away from traditional court action. A defendant can be disqualified or rejected from the diversion program if the alleged victim in the case (the store) is opposed to your participation in the program, or if you have been previously convicted of a crime or have previously enrolled in a diversion program.
Importance of an Attorney
Although classified as a misdemeanor, Petit Theft is a serious offense, not only because of the potential penalties it carries, but because of the devastating consequences for a person’s criminal record. A conviction will permanently interfere with a person’s ability to obtain employment, pass background checks, obtain security clearances, gain admission to colleges, and to carry out other functions in their personal and professional life.
An attorney is critical to avoiding or minimizing the harsh consequences of a theft prosecution. He or she can identify defenses that may be applicable in a case, and advise a client on the best course of action to avoid a permanent record. Even in cases that lack viable defenses, a defense attorney can make early contact with the prosecution, present mitigating evidence, and negotiate for a client’s admission into pretrial intervention or other diversionary program. The chances of being admitted into such a program increase substantially if a person is represented by counsel.
If you have been accused of petit theft, retail theft, or shoplifting in Washington DC, Washington DC, Broward County, Martin County, St. Lucie County or elsewhere in Southeast Washington DC, contact the attorneys At Cohen Law, P.A. for a free consultation.