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When are defenses to theft charges in California?

In California, what the accused meant to do is not relevant when they are charged with certain crimes. Other criminal statutes make intent a key element. With those crimes, if the prosecution cannot prove that the defendant intended to break the specific law at issue, the jury should not find the defendant guilty.

One example of a crime for which intent is a necessary element is theft, also known as larceny. Prosecutors must convince the jury or judge beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant took something that did not belong to them without permission, and specifically intended to do so.

Common defenses to larceny charges include:

  • Claim of ownership or right to possess
  • Mistake of fact or law
  • Owner’s consent
  • Entrapment
  • Intoxication to the point that intent was impossible

For example, if a person borrows his neighbor’s lawn mower, believing he had permission to do so, he could not be convicted for theft, even if the mower’s owner did not actually give permission. Or if the person gets intoxicated at a party and takes the wrong coat home by mistake, that person similarly did not commit theft as understood under California law.

A conviction for grand theft could result in felony-level penalties. This means that the defendant could be sent to prison instead of jail, from six months up to three years. Because of this, someone charged with a theft crime, and certainly grand larceny, should strongly consider hiring a defense attorney to handle their case. It could make the difference between prison time and a not guilty verdict.

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John Patrick Ryan has been practicing law for over 20 years. Experienced in criminal law. U.S. Navy Veteran.