July 29, 2022 By Paul Wallin

Can I Still Be Charged with Theft in California If I Return the Property?

If someone steals an item but returns it the next day, can he still be charged with theft? The answer to this question may not be obvious. In order to answer it, we must first understand how the California Penal Code defines theft. 

Definition of Theft in California 

Theft is split up into two broad categories, petty theft and grand theft, depending on the value of the stolen property. If the value is under $950, it is considered petty theft. If the value exceeds $950, or in certain situations such as when the property is an automobile or a firearm, it is grand theft. In order to convict you of petty theft (PC Section 484) or grand theft (PC Section 487), the prosecution must prove: 

  • You took possession of property owned by someone else 
  • You took the property without the owner’s consent 
  • When you took the property, you intended to deprive the owner of it permanently 
  • You moved the property, even a small distance, and kept it for any period of time, however brief 

What If I Return the Property? 

In most cases, even if you return a stolen item, you may still be charged with theft. However, this depends on your intent. As stated above, in order for the prosecution to convict you of theft, it must prove that when you took the property, you intended to deprive the owner of it permanently. This is often a hard burden of proof. If your defense attorney can convince the court that you did not intend to keep the property, then the charges against you may be dropped. 

Borrowing Property 

Let’s say, for example, a man took his roommate’s vacuum cleaner, used it, and then returned it the next day. While the man probably should have asked for his roommate’s permission before he used the vacuum, this would not be considered theft because he had no intention of keeping the vacuum and returned it before the owner was deprived of his property rights. However, if the man’s roommate needed his vacuum but the man decided to keep it for an extra week, the court may reason that the owner’s property rights were deprived over that week and convict the man of theft. As such, there is a thin line between what is considered “borrowing” and what is considered theft, so it is best to exercise caution when borrowing. 

Accidental Theft 

Accidents do happen. For instance, if a child places an item in his mom’s bag while she isn’t paying attention and they leave the store with it, the mother would not have the requisite intent for theft. Generally, in these scenarios, a store would not prosecute someone for returning an item once she realizes that she had accidentally taken it. But if the person decides to keep the item even after realizing it had been accidentally stolen, she may face charges if she is discovered. Then, the prosecution would be able to prove that the person intended to permanently deprive the owner of property rights by keeping it. 

Returning Due to Remorse 

It’s harder to argue that you didn’t intend to deprive an owner of his property if you steal it and then return it due to a feeling of guilt or regret. For example, a man steals someone’s wallet but later returns it to its owner because he feels badly. In this situation, the man originally intended to permanently keep the wallet. Even though he ultimately returned it, he can still be prosecuted under California’s theft laws. However, returning a stolen item may convince the court of your remorse, and the judge may grant you a lighter sentence. If, on the other hand, you decide to keep the item and are later caught, your penalties may be much stricter and harsher. 

Contact Wallin & Klarich Today 

If you have been accused of theft, contact Wallin & Klarich as soon as possible to see how we can help. With 40+ years of experience, Wallin & Klarich is your best choice amongst Southern California criminal defense firms. Our attorneys have helped thousands of clients defend against theft charges, and we have the skills and resources to help you avoid hefty fines and jail sentences. 

With offices in Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Victorville, Torrance, West Covina, Los Angeles, and San Diego, you are sure to find an available and convenient attorney near you. Discover how our team can assist you. Contact us today, toll-free at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free consultation with a skilled defense attorney.

AUTHOR: Paul Wallin

Paul Wallin is one of the most highly respected attorneys in Southern California. His vast experience, zealous advocacy for his clients and extensive knowledge of many areas of the law make Mr. Wallin a premiere Southern California attorney. Mr. Wallin founded Wallin & Klarich in 1981. As the senior partner of Wallin & Klarich, Mr. Wallin has been successfully representing clients for more than 30 years. Clients come to him for help in matters involving assault and battery, drug crimes, juvenile crimes, theft, manslaughter, sex offenses, murder, violent crimes, misdemeanors and felonies. Mr. Wallin also helps clients with family law matters such as divorce and child custody.

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