California Petty Theft Laws: Detention and Civil Demands

Unless specifically set forth as grounds for Grand Theft, the Petty Theft laws apply, as follows:

  •  Petty Theft is often referred to as shoplifting; as a general rule it takes place when one obtains property by theft, that involves a value less than nine hundred fifty dollars ($950);
  • A first conviction generally constitutes and is punished as a misdemeanor. Penal Code Section 490 provides for a fine for each violation of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000), or up to six (6) months in the county jail, or both;
  • The prosecutor (District Attorney or City Attorney) has the discretion to charge the defendant as an infraction if the person has no prior theft or theft-related conviction (Section 490.1);
  • In addition to other civil remedies, the merchant can make a civil demand and collect up to five hundred dollars ($500), plus costs. In addition, the store may collect the retail value of the merchandise;
  • Pursuant to 490.5 (f) (1) of the Penal Code, a merchant may detain a person for a reasonable time to conduct an investigation if the merchant has probable cause to believe the person of interest unlawfully attempted to take or has unlawfully taken merchandise from the premises of the store.
  • A reasonable amount of force not likely to cause great bodily harm may be used if it is necessary and, therefore it becomes, justifiable, to protect oneself and/or to prevent the person who has been detained from fleeing &/or the loss of the merchant’s property;
  • Following the above principles, the merchant may request the person who has been detained to voluntarily surrender the item in question, and if refused, is permitted to conduct a reasonable search to recover the same. This involves and is limited to handbags, packages, shopping bags and/or other property possessed by the detained person; this search does not, however, encompass any clothing worn. Crimes Against Property:

Although a merchant may demand attorney’s fees or threaten to cause harm to a person’s credit, they do not have the power to do so [attorney’s fees are prohibited in such a case, and because there has been no adjudication of money owed, they cannot report someone to a credit bureau]. Also, it may be deemed a violation of State extortion and Federal collection laws for a merchant to threaten criminal &/or civil action

The facts and circumstances differ in one case from another and, therefore, the information in this Blog is not intended as legal advice.

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