Petty Larceny and Grand Larceny Laws


The terms "petty larceny" (petty theft) and "grand larceny" (grand theft) are descriptions of acts of theft or stealing -- the unlawful taking of the personal property of another. Larceny is another word for theft. The word "petty" is derived from the French word, petit (small), while the word grand is the French word for "big". That is to say, petty larceny is a small theft, and grand larceny is the theft of a larger or bigger amount of money or goods. The threshold at which an act of petty larceny becomes an act of grand larceny is based upon the value of the goods stolen. Many states have abandoned the labels, "petty" and "grand", and instead classify acts of theft or larceny based upon a specific dollar amount, such as "Theft under $200" for the misdemeanor (petty) offense. Even states that continue to use the traditional label may break down the offenses by dollar amount, such that even within the offense of petty larceny or grand larceny the amount stolen can affect the penalty imposed on the offender. The amount that will transform a less serious petty larceny"offense into a more serious grand larceny offense can vary significantly between states, and in some states that threshold is very low. In some states, the nature of the item stolen (e.g., a firearm) can affect the threshold at which a petty larceny charge becomes grand larceny. The most common act that results in a petty larceny charge is shoplifting, although depending upon the full facts and amount stolen the act of shoplifting may result in a more serious charge, such as grand larceny or commercial burglary. Larceny does not historically include the theft of services, because services are not a form of personal property, but all states now have theft laws that apply to service providers.

What are the Elements of Larceny

Although states define larceny by statute, such that the nature of a larceny charge and the sentence it carries may be different, the general conception of larceny remains consistent with its common law roots: Larceny is the wrongful taking and carrying away of the personal property of another person, without that person's consent and with the intent to steal the property  that is, the taking of the property of another with the intent to permanently deprive that actual owner of the property.

Larceny is a "specific intent" crime, meaning that the prosecution must prove that the defendant intended to steal the property at issue in the case, but intent can be established by reasonable inference from the facts of the case. The acts of taking the property or carrying it away can be met by even momentary control over the property, or even the slight movement of the property. If a shoplifting suspect picks up an item and places it into his pocket, those acts will normally be sufficient to prove both a taking and carrying away, even if the suspect is detained before he takes a single step. Further, many states have created statutory presumptions that may apply in larceny cases, such as a presumption that the act of concealment of the property of a merchant is evidence of the intent to steal the merchandise.

What are the Consequences of a Larceny Conviction

As a criminal offense, a larceny conviction carries the potential for incarceration. For defendants who avoid a jail sentence, or for those whose sentence is fully or partially suspended, the defendant will typically be placed on probation. The convicted defendant will also be ordered to pay fines, court assessments and, when applicable, supervision fees and restitution. Depending on the seriousness of the charge, a defendant may face a period of incarceration in a county jail or, for longer sentences, even to prison. Younger offenders may potentially be sentenced to juvenile detention.

As larceny is a crime that relates to honesty, even a misdemeanor conviction for larceny can carry significant consequences for future employment. For non-citizens, a larceny offense may be treated as a crime involving moral turpitude, affecting their eligibility to obtain a visa, or a crime reflecting poor moral character, affecting their ability to naturalize. Larceny is normally charged only in the absence of force or threat against another person and, in many states, even slight force or threat can result in a much more serious charge, such as robbery. Where an act of theft follows the unlawful entry into somebody else's property or vehicle, the defendant is likely to face the more serious charge of burglary.

What is the Punishment for Petty Larceny

Although classified as a less serious crime, petty larceny remains punishable not only by fines, court assessments, and restitution to the victim, but carries a potential jail sentence. First offenders are rarely sentenced to jail, but the outcome in any specific case will depend upon the full facts of the offense. Also, some courts are more likely to sentence defendants to jail, even for a first offense. For defendants with prior offenses or who are charged with multiple offenses, jail becomes more likely. Courts frequently sentence offenders to additional requirements, such as completion of community service, or participation in a county work crew performing tasks such as collecting trash from along local roads and highways.

What is the Punishment for Grand Larceny

Grand larceny is normally classified as a felony charge and, in addition to fines, court assessments and restitution, most grand larceny charges will carry the potential of a prison sentence. Although a first offender may be able to avoid incarceration, a felony conviction can result in the loss of civil rights under both state and federal law, potentially affecting the defendant's ability to vote, to own a firearm, to participate on a jury, or to receive certain forms of public assistance.

Alternative Dispositions for Larceny Offenses

Even when a defendant is guilty as charged, it may be possible for that person to avoid a criminal conviction in a larceny case, or to plead guilty to a lesser offense. Common alternative dispositions include:

Diversion and Deferral Programs

Although the details of available programs will vary significantly by state, and even from county-to-county within a state, most jurisdictions offer some form of diversion or deferral program for certain classes of theft and offender. Some programs will be available only for certain types of offense (such as shoplifting), may be restricted to first offenders, may only be available to younger persons, or may have other restrictions attached. A diversion program is a name for a disposition that is usually arranged before a formal charge is filed. The larceny suspect is given the opportunity to complete the program, perhaps through payment of restitution, community service, educational classes, or through some combination of those or similar measures. If the suspect successfully completes the program the charge is dismissed. If not, the charge is returned to the criminal docket for prosecution.

A deferral program is a name for a disposition that is usually arranged after a charge has been filed. Deferral comes in two general forms, pretrial deferral and deferred sentencing. With pretrial deferral, the charge is put on hold while the defendant is given the opportunity to complete a set of requirements akin to those imposed as part of a diversion program. If the defendant successfully completes those requirements, the charge will be dismissed; if not, the prosecution of the case resumes. For deferred sentencing, after the defendant is convicted of the charge or enters a guilty plea the defendant is given the opportunity to complete a program prior to being sentenced for the offense. If the defendant successfully completes the program, the charge is dismissed. If not, a conviction is entered and the defendant is sentenced on the conviction charge.

Young Offender Programs

Most states have passed laws that allow for younger defendants, usually those below the age of twenty-one, to avoid a criminal conviction for a criminal offense. Although the details of young offender programs vary significantly between states, most states restrict their availability to a first offense or to a single charge. The nature of the sentence that may be imposed can also vary significantly, with some states providing for a defendant to be incarcerated or sentenced to a boot camp program as part of the disposition. Successful completion of a youthful offender program will typically result in dismissal of the criminal charge and the sealing of the court records and disposition for the associated prosecution.

Plea Bargains

Plea bargaining is common in criminal cases and take two forms, charge bargains and sentence bargains. Common charge bargains in larceny cases include a plea to a less serious larceny charge, a plea to a different offense (e.g., disorderly conduct), or a plea to an attempted larceny charge. Common sentence bargains include a promise of no jail time, or another specific, agreed penalty that the defendant agrees to in advance of entering a guilty plea. Plea bargains are subject to review by a court to ensure that they are consistent with the interests of justice.

Any person charged with the crime of larceny should strongly consider consulting a criminal defense lawyer to learn what is likely to occur in court and, in the event of a plea bargain or conviction, what sentence they are likely to receive, as well as what alternative dispositions may be available to them and whether they can avoid a criminal conviction.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Oct 30, 2017.