In this discussion I wanted to discuss petty theft cases in Los Angeles County. The charging statutes & related prosecutions changed dramatically in recent years. I believe opportunities have increased for theft alternative solutions. Every theft case is serious, and attorney representation is critical.
What is Los Angeles Petty Theft?
Petty Theft in Los Angeles Courts is defined in the California Penal Code, and requires proof that a person takes property valued at $950 or less. The change from the $400 previous petty theft "limit," is the first substantive change related to value since the 1970s. In my opinion, this higher threshold provides a compelling justification for prosecutors and judges to consider expanded creative solutions in theft cases.
Common examples of theft cases include, shoplifting at store, price tag switch (higher to lower), employee stealing from employer, as well as failing to return rental car (well beyond agreed upon date), to name a few.
Los Angeles theft cases are usually charged in court as misdemeanors, unless the case involves property value in the thousands of dollars.
What motivates petty theft offenders?
This is an interesting subject, broad in scope. Common causes include, lack of impulse control, perception of necessity (stealing food), drug or alcohol addiction, group influence to steal (peer pressure of a teenager), and psychological impairment. Each of these causes requires a different approach in court by an experienced theft defense attorney.
1. Lack of Impulse Control
Depending on the circumstances, people who steal because of "impulse" problems may benefit from counseling such as Behavioral Management Group, which emphasizes strategies to combat inappropriate conduct such as theft. Courts and prosecutors in Los Angeles may consider a court alternative in these cases, evaluating the amount of the theft, remorse of the offender, as well as other related factors.
These cases are probably the most compelling. As a prosecutor, when I saw a case where an indigent person stole food, I would have considered a solution proposed by a defense attorney where the person was placed into a public or private live-in program, such as Salvation Army, perhaps avoiding a theft conviction. A “necessity” such as this likely continues without significant systematic intervention.
More often than not, theft "necessity," tends to be of items less "necessary," and commonly involves theft of alcohol. Solutions of these cases may necessitate substantial “intervention” by the justice system to avoid recidivist behavior.
3. Drug or Alcohol Problem
Drug addicts and alcoholics who lack financial resources but still have cravings will often steal to support their habit. While it is not unusual for a store merchant to observe an alcoholic stealing alcohol, I have seen dozens of cases over the years where thefts involves unrelated and higher value items, such as laptops, computer games, stereos, to name a few. I think it is important to resolve the underlying cause in these theft cases. Substantial Live-In Treatment Programs, such as those utilized by the courts through the A.I.R. Program, have valuable treatment which can address addictions and alleviate the underlying causes.
One aspect of theft/drugs or alcohol involves a person consuming the intoxicant before the theft, to work up the courage to do so. These situations are often treated more harshly, with incarceration a likely possibility.
I have seen this type of case with youthful offenders, as well as adults. Punishment is likely to be different for a teenager; some prosecutors will consider a "healthy" dose of Cal Trans as a means of redemption for a young offender, rather than a theft conviction. An older violator may well end up on probation with a theft conviction, depending on the circumstances.
5. Psychological Impairment
In many cases, a person may not be legally responsible for him or herself, because of an underlying psychological problem. Judges and prosecutors will consider credible evidence related to this issue; if a problem has been previously diagnosed, I think it carries more weight in the justice system.
Older people with dementia, Alzheimer's, and related medical issues, can oftentimes be steered more towards treatment, than towards punishment. These cases become more problematic when the theft conduct is repeated, which can subject the person to Civil Commitment or jail. It is extremely important to remove the risk of multiple thefts in these cases, through support from family and friends.
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