What is Theft Law?
Theft law deals with a variety of crimes in which the defendant takes money, assets, services, or other property with the intent of permanently depriving the owner of the property. These crimes exist at the federal, state, and local levels of government. Theft statutes usually refer to the value of the property taken by the defendant, with penalties escalating on this basis. Besides imposing jail, fines, and other punishment, courts in all jurisdictions will require those convicted of theft to make restitution by repaying victims for their losses.
Categories of Theft Crimes
Offenses involving property valued at less than $1,000 or so are usually treated as misdemeanors. These crimes are commonly referred to as petty or petite larceny. Thefts of more valuable property are referred to as grand larceny and treated as felonies. Besides the value of the property taken, theft crimes are categorized by the type of property taken and the method used by the perpetrator to acquire it.
The most serious theft crimes involve the use or threatened use of force. Most notable among these is the crime of robbery. Some instances of robbery are easy to recognize, such as mugging, bank heists, and carjacking. Other times robbery charges can come as a surprise, especially to those accused of conduct that might seem less serious at first blush. For example, a person apprehended for shoplifting who attempts to flee with the merchandise by physically breaking free of a security guard's grasp may very well be guilty of robbery.
Another category of theft involves financial crimes, such as embezzlement, insurance fraud, and forgery. Also known as white collar crime, these offenses are often committed by people who hold positions of trust within the business community. Through various forms of dishonest conduct, perpetrators of financial crimes find ways to steal from victims using trickery, rather than force. Some of the largest and most notorious thefts ever carried out fall within this category.
Property Valuation Issues
Theft statutes will indicate what the minimum value of the stolen property must be in order for the defendant to be convicted under that specific law. This can provide an opportunity for accused individuals to defend their case without regard for whether or not the property was wrongfully taken. Victims and prosecutors often inflate the true value of the stolen property to serve their own purposes. Victims do so in hopes of being reimbursed more than they deserve, and prosecutors do not want to spend the time that is necessary to independently verify the information provided by the victims.
A successful challenge to the minimum value of the property will lead the court to dismiss the case, or at least force the prosecutor to amend the charges to a less serious theft offense. Defendants should work with their attorneys to gain access to the supporting documents provided by the victim, such as purchase receipts, written appraisals, or blue book valuation printouts. In some cases, defendants will be surprised to learn that the valuation upon which they are being prosecuted rests on nothing more than an unsupported assertion by the victim.
Defendants who suspect the property value allegations are inaccurate should collect competent evidence to the contrary. As with other matters that arise in criminal cases, the degree to which the defendant can persuade the judge on the issue of valuation will depend upon the reliability of the evidence presented.
Thus, the judge will give little credence to a defendant who takes the stand and asserts that, in his or her opinion, the property is worth less than the statutory minimum. On the other hand, the judge will pay close attention to the testimony of an expert in the field of appraising property of that kind. This is especially true if the defendant's attorney has previously arranged for the expert to inspect the stolen property during pre-trial discovery.
Deferral Programs for First Offenders
Any sort of theft crime conviction can severely impact the employability of the defendant in the future. In an effort to keep a record of the incident from appearing on their criminal histories, qualifying defendants in many jurisdictions can request to take part in a deferral program. Under such a program the defendant pleads guilty, but the court holds the plea pending successful completion of probation. As long as the defendant pays restitution, stays out of trouble, and satisfies all of the other conditions imposed by the judge, the case will be dismissed at the end of the probationary period. The plea is never entered, and no conviction will appear on the defendant's record.
Consult with a Theft Law Defense Attorney
If you have been accused of theft, it is important to consult with a criminal defense attorney immediately. Even if charges have not yet been filed, an attorney can protect your rights while the crime is being investigated. Schedule a consultation now to learn how the law applies to the facts of your case.
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