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Can You go to Prison for Theft?

10 May 2022, Prison Rules, by

During the past year, you may have noticed a lot of news stories about the trend of “smash and grab” robberies in California. During the height of the most recent Christmas shopping season, there was a hit on a Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco’s Union Square. There were also incidents at Burberry and Bloomingdales.… Continue reading Can You go to Prison for Theft?

Can You go to Prison for Theft? - Prison Insight

During the past year, you may have noticed a lot of news stories about the trend of “smash and grab” robberies in California. During the height of the most recent Christmas shopping season, there was a hit on a Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco’s Union Square. There were also incidents at Burberry and Bloomingdales.

In one viral video from late 2021, a group of about 80 people wearing ski masks and carrying crowbars walked into a Nordstrom just outside of San Francisco and engaged in a large-scale “smash and grab” operation where they stole thousands of dollars worth of merchandise.

The Nordstrom hit is what authorities called a “planned event,” where these masked people grab armfuls of products and flee to waiting cars. 

A similar incident to the Nordstrom robbery happened again in the nearby city of Hayward just a few days later. Around the same time—down in Los Angeles—more than $330,000 in goods were stolen over the course of two weeks in 11 “smash and grab” incidents.

When you look at this insane pattern of theft incidents, the first question that comes to mind is: what the heck is going on? Why has there been such an increase in robberies in that state? And why are these people being so brazen about it? 

So, today we are going to talk about theft, the law, and the possible consequences. Specifically, we are going to answer today’s blog question—can you go to prison for theft?

In this post I will cover the following topics:

  • How theft is defined and classified in law
  • Possible punishments for misdemeanor theft
  • Possible punishments for felony theft
  • What caused the “smash and grabs” in California?

How theft is defined and classified in law

The crime of theft (aka stealing) is basically defined in the law as “taking the property of another person without authorization.” At the federal level in the United States, the only time you will get charged with theft is if you are accused of stealing government property. Or, it’s possible to catch a federal theft charge amid acts of theft that involve the internet.

However, the VAST majority of theft cases are at the state level. Which means there are 50 different ways of handling theft cases in the United States of America. Obviously, I’m not going to break these laws down in 50 different ways. Instead, I will work with generalizations. Despite the nuances in all of the state’s theft laws, there are a lot of commonalities.

First off, most states categorize theft crimes as either misdemeanors or felonies. A misdemeanor theft charge is a less serious offense, while a felony theft charge is a much more serious accusation.

Whether or not an act of theft constitutes a misdemeanor or a felony charge usually depends on the value of the property taken. Other factors taken into consideration include the person’s criminal history and the type of property stolen. 

For example, in my home state of Missouri, the theft of a firearm is an automatic felony, regardless of its monetary value. It’s the type of item stolen that makes it a felony.

After a theft crime is classified as a misdemeanor or felony, most states break this down even further to make the charges more specific. There are different levels of misdemeanors and felonies in most states that are, once again, based on the value and type of property stolen.

Possible punishments for misdemeanor theft

Misdemeanor theft charges can be broken down in most states by property value. In Missouri, a misdemeanor theft charge applies when the “stolen property or services are valued at less than $750” and felony provisions about the type of property don’t apply. 

In other words, if you stole items valued at less than $750 that weren’t listed in a felony statute (weapons, drug paraphernalia, etc…) you will be charged with a misdemeanor. A first offense is a “Class D” if it involves less than $150 of stolen property, and the punishment is a $500 fine.

A “Class A” misdemeanor in Missouri is when someone steals property or services worth more than $150 but less than $750. This comes with a possible punishment of up to one year in the county jail, plus a fine of no more than $2000.

The dollar amounts and specifics do vary from state to state. But as a rule, a low-level misdemeanor theft charge will result in a fine and maybe a few weeks in jail, no matter what state you are in.

Possible punishments for felony theft

When it comes to felony-level theft, there is usually a prison sentence attached to a conviction. In some states, there are also fines specifically listed in the law. While others base the fines on what the offender gained while committing their crime. 

Once again, I’ll go back to my home state of Missouri for an example. (Just remember, this will vary in your state a bit when it comes to how many felony/misdemeanor classes there are, the number of years in prison, and the specific dollar amounts.)

Missouri has five different levels of felony theft — from Class A to Class E. The lowest level is a Class E felony theft charge, which is defined as “stealing an animal” other than those listed in Classes A through D. 

A person can also be charged with Class E felony theft if they’ve been charged with four stealing offenses in a 10-year period. This carries a maximum penalty of up to four years in prison and a $10,000 fine. 

Theft in Missouri is considered a Class D felony under the following circumstances: 

  • the value of the property or services stolen is $750 or more but less than $25,000
  • the property is taken from the person of the victim, or
  • the property is one of the following items:
    • motor vehicle, watercraft, or aircraft
    • firearm or explosive weapon
    • controlled substance
    • credit card
    • U.S. flag used for display
    • original copy of a legislative instrument such as an act, bill, or resolution, or a court or historical document
    • voter registration book or list, a will, or an unrecorded property deed
    • certain live fish, livestock, or captive wildlife
    • ammonium nitrate
    • any material stolen with intent to make, test, or analyze amphetamine or methamphetamine, or
    • any wire, electrical transformer, or metallic wire used to transmit wire communications, conduct electricity, or transport combustible fuels.

When convicted of a class D felony, you could go to prison for up to seven years and be fined up to $10,000.

Class C felony theft is defined as “stealing property or services valued at $25,000 or more” and it comes with a prison sentence of three to 10 years and up to a $10,000 fine. 

A Class B felony theft occurs when someone steals property that contains anhydrous ammonia,  and it comes with a prison sentence of between five and 15 years. It’s also a Class B felony to:

  • steal property containing liquid nitrogen
  • commit a second offense involving stealing livestock or captive wildlife valued at more than $3,000
  • steal livestock valued at more than $10,000
  • steal a motor vehicle, watercraft, or aircraft, when the person has been found guilty of two prior theft-related offenses in the past 10 years, or
  • steal property from a financial institution.

Finally, under Missouri law it is a Class A felony to “steal certain property—a tank truck, tank trailer, rail tank car, bulk storage tank, field nurse, field tank, or field applicator—containing any amount of anhydrous ammonia (a chemical used to make methamphetamine).”

If you are convicted of Class A felony theft in Missouri, you will get a prison sentence of 10 to 30 years or life imprisonment.

What caused the “Smash and Grabs” in California?

Many people point to the criminal justice reforms in California as being responsible for the recent string of “smash and grabs” in the state. Specifically, they bring up Prop 47–a ballot measure approved by voters in 2014–that reduced penalties for certain non-violent and low-level offenses. 

This law made thefts of $950 or less a misdemeanor. And once people realized they could steal items from a store worth less than $1,000 and not get punished for it, it was “open season for people to take whatever they want.” 

Now, stores are advising employees not to interfere with the shoplifters, so they don’t get hurt. Many of these crimes don’t get reported. As the Sacramento district attorney said, “There’s no consequences any more to theft.”

According to Walgreens, their San Francisco stores “experience a level of theft five times the national average.” As a consequence, the chain has been steadily closing locations in the Bay Area. The pharmacy chain has “shuttered 17 already and last month announced five more closures.”

Not everyone agrees that it’s the relaxed laws that are causing the theft problems in California.

“There are a lot of unknowns about what’s behind the ‘smash-and-grabs’ and robberies, but I’m quite confident that this is not the result of Prop 47, specifically, or criminal justice reforms more generally,” Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, told The New York Post.

What do you think? Are the relaxed theft laws in California causing the problem? Or, is there another reason? Let us know in the comments below.


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