Introduction 

The crime of Grand Theft (California Penal Code section 487) covers a litany of different crimes but generally concerns you (allegedly) stealing money or something of value (including someone’s services or labor) that is worth at least $951.

Sometimes the amount of such property becomes a hotly debated issue in certain theft cases because if a jury determines that it was worth less, then you can only be convicted of Petty Theft (California Penal Code section 486; California Penal Code section 490.2).

For example, the prosecution and defense may each put on their own witnesses at the preliminary hearing (for felony cases only) and/or at trial (for both misdemeanors and felonies) to testify as to the fair market value or wholesale value of the property or goods on the day they were allegedly stolen, or the “market wage” of the services that were defrauded.

See Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) number 1800 (“Theft by Larceny -- Pen. Code § 484”):

Regardless of the amount at issue, theft crimes – including Grand Theft – can fall into different categories, including the following:

Theft by Larceny (California Penal Code section 484)

Theft by False Pretenses (California Penal Code section 532)

Theft by Embezzlement (California Penal Code section 503)

But these are all simply different modes of theft – the punishments are typically the same for each, and the jury doesn’t need to agree on which mode to convict you of at your Grand Theft trial.

Theft Crimes – Grand Theft -- “Wobblers”

The vast majority of Grand Theft crimes can be charged as either misdemeanors or as felonies, depending on what the prosecutor wants to do with your case. As such, Grand Theft offenses are commonly referred to as “Wobblers” (California Penal Code section 17(b)).

Theft Crimes – Grand Theft -- “Strikes”

There are some exceptions to the Wobbler charge, meaning that if you commit Grand Theft under the following circumstances, you will not only be prosecuted for a felony, but also for a Strike Offense under the state’s so-called “Three Strikes” law, which is largely codified at California Penal Code section 667(a)&(b)):

If this is your first Strike conviction, then you’ll get five years tacked on to your underlying prison sentence for Grand Theft (assuming the judge requires a prison term to be served). Typically, you’d have to serve 85% of your sentence even if you’re a model prisoner, but because of overcrowding, that figure has been reduced to 66% (two-thirds).

If this is your second Strike conviction, your underlying prison sentence for Grand Theft will be doubled, and if it’s your third, you’ll get 25-to-life.

California Statutes – Theft Crimes -- Grand Theft

California Penal Code section 487 (Grand Theft) 

This statute defines Grand Theft as you stealing any money, services, or real/personal property valued at a minimum of $951. Penal Code section 487(a).

This amount is calculated based on the money/services/property taken in a single instance, except where the theft is from an employee, or where the services/labor have been extracted over an extended period of time. In that case, all amounts stolen from your employer (or from your employee, for example) over the course of a year will be added together to determine whether you will be charged with Grand or Petty Theft. Pen. Code section 487(b)(3).

Also, this statute specifies that the $951-and-up threshold doesn’t apply – meaning that a lesser amount will still constitute Grand Theft – if you stole anything from someone’s person (in which case you will almost certainly instead be charged with Second-Degree Robbery (California Penal Code section 212.5(c)); or if you stole an automobile (in which case you’ll be charged with Grand Theft Auto (“GTA”) (California Penal Code section 487(d)(1)); or if you stole a gun. Pen. Code § 487(c)&(d).

California Penal Code section 484 (Definition of Theft) 

This statute defines the crime of theft in general as including the following acts:

  • You unlawfully take away someone’s personal property;

  • You misappropriate property which has been placed in your care by the owner;

  • You intentionally and willfully use a false/fraudulent representation/pretense to defraud someone of money/labor/property;

  • You misrepresent your financial condition or business status in order to obtain credit which you then use to obtain money/property/services from another person.

See Penal Code section 484(a).

California Penal Code section 486 (Degrees of Theft) 

Hereunder, the crime of theft is divided into two degrees: Grand Theft and Petty Theft.

California Penal Code 532(a) (Theft by False Pretenses)

If you intentionally and deliberately, by using a false/fraudulent representation/pretense, defraud anyone of money/labor/real property/personal property, or if you misrepresent yourself in order to obtain credit to do the same, then you can be charged with Grand Theft under this particular statute.

Theft Crimes Convictions – Grand Theft

California Penal Code section 489 (Punishments for Grand Theft) 

If you were convicted of misdemeanor Grand Theft, you may only receive probation; however, if you did get a jail term, at most it will be for one year. Penal Code section 489(b)&(c).

A felony Grand Theft conviction may also result in no jail or prison, but if the latter is ordered by the judge, then the range is 16, 24, or 36 months pursuant to California Penal Code section 1170(h)(1)). Pen. Code section 489(b)&(c).

Theft Crimes Convictions – Sentencing Enhancements -- Grand Theft

In addition to the Strike Offenses (California Penal Code section 667(a)&(b)) discussed above, prior to this statute being repealed at the end of 2018 (thanks to then-Governor Brown refusing to extend it), you could get additional prison time for a Grand Theft felony conviction if the value of the money, services, or property was high.

Specifically, these enhancements were as follows:

  • Twelve more months if the value was at least $65,001;

  • Twenty-four more months if it was at least $200,001;

  • Three-six extra months if it was $1,300,001 or more;

  • Forty-eight additional months if it was $3,200,001 or more.

See former California Penal Code section 12022.6.

So – at least for the present time – there are no additional sentencing enhancements for felony Grand Theft convictions.

Defenses to Theft Crimes Charges -- Grand Theft

The following are all valid defenses to Grand Theft prosecutions:

  • You had a good-faith belief that the subject property was actually yours;

  • You didn’t take property or money that belonged to another;

  • You did take it but did so with his/her legally-obtained permission;

  • You only intended to keep the property for a very brief period of time;

  • You never moved the property for any distance;

  • You didn’t intentionally or willfully con the owner out of the subject property;

  • You didn’t know the property belonged to another person;

  • You didn’t use fraud or deceit to gain possession of the property;

  • The owner gave you possession of the property to use it in a certain way, and at that time, you didn’t intended to use it in a different way.

See CALCRIM number 1801 (“Grand and Petty Theft -- Pen. Code §§ 486, 487-488, 490.2, 491”);

CALCRIM number 1800 (“Theft by Larceny -- Pen. Code § 484”);

CALCRIM number 1804 (“Theft by False Pretense -- Pen. Code § 484”);

CALCRIM number 1805 (“Theft by Trick -- Pen. Code § 484”);

CALCRIM number 1863 (“Defense to Theft or Robbery: Claim of Right”);

Please remember that the claim of right defense only works if you were trying to retrieve an actual piece of personal property as opposed to merely trying to recoup a debt from the victim.

See People v. Tufunga (1999) 21 Cal.4th 935, 945–950.

Examples of Theft Crimes – Grand Theft

Three Chinese Nationals Take No-Contest Pleas for Defrauding Other Chinese Nationals

Over a four-month period in the mid-2010’s (11/15-03/16), two Chinese nationals – West Covina resident Mr. Nianfei Bu (age 21 at the time) and Rowland Heights resident Ms. Hourong Zhang (age 23) – allegedly offered to provide visas to almost half-a-dozen other Chinese nationals in exchange for them investing in restaurants supposedly owned by Bu.

It’s unclear if Bu actually owned any restaurants, though in light of his young age, that was highly doubtful. What is clear is that neither suspect was an immigration attorney or similarly licensed/certified immigration professional, but they allegedly took the money – more than a million-and-a-half dollars -- but failed to deliver on their promises.

At some point thereafter, both suspects were arrested and charged with felony Grand Theft (California Penal Code section 487), and felony Conspiracy to Commit Grand Theft (California Penal Code section 182 -- California’s general conspiracy statute).

As a result, on or about Nov. 4, 2019, Bu accepted a nolo contendere plea to running the fraudulent enterprise – specifically, to several felony counts of Grand Theft, as well as a third related felony. His sentence: 36 months in a state penitentiary and a restitution order for the full amount he took, plus interest.

In a separate case, a third Chinese national, Bu’s wife, Yjie Zhong (age 24 at the time of the scheme) also pleaded out nolo contendere to a felony count for Grand Theft, as well as to a related felony. She only received 60 months of formal probation, three months of volunteer work, and was ordered to pay restitution as well. It remains unclear what happened to Zhang.

Interestingly, although these cases resulted from a joint investigation of the United States Dept. of Homeland Security, three California state agencies, and the LA Co. DA’s Office, the prosecution remained with the latter agency (as opposed to being prosecuted in federal court).

See: da.lacounty.gov

A Mother and Her Two Daughters Plead No Contest to Four-Plus Years’ Child-Care Fraud Scheme

For almost four-and-a-half years (09/09-01/15), three suspects – Lancaster resident Cathy Pullum (age 48 at the end of that period), Pullum’s daughter Ashley Collins (then age 29 and also from Lancaster) and a second daughter Taylor Lind (then 25, from Palmdale) ran a fraud scheme where they bilked the state government for funds related to child care through their Lancaster pre-school.

Specifically, the women roped in numerous mothers who provided them with the ID info of their toddlers, whom the suspects reported to the state were being cared for at their facility, which was ostensibly used to provide services to low income families. The suspects received money from the state, part of which they kicked back to the mothers.

It remains unclear how authorities caught on to the scheme but in Feb. 2017, the three suspects and more than half-a-dozen mothers were arrested and charged with a total of more than seventy felonies, including Grand Theft and Conspiracy to Commit Grand Theft, Forgery (California Penal Code section 470), and Perjury (California Penal Code section 118).

At the end of July 2019, the mother and daughters all pled guilty to only a single felony count of Perjury in exchange for dismissal of all the other charges. As a result, they only received 60 months of formal probation, six weeks of volunteer work, 24 months of electronic monitoring, and restitution of more than one million dollars.

In addition, the 7 mothers also all pled guilty to one felony Grand Theft charge each, and also received up to 60 months of probation plus volunteer work.

See: da.lacounty.gov

A Few Examples of Theft Crimes – Felony Grand Theft Cases Handled by the LADALF

“P.W.” Prosecuted for Felony Grand Theft; Facing 36 Months in Prison; Case Dismissed

People v. P.W. (LA Int’l Airport Ct. – 04/16):

Client was arrested after walking out of a Rodeo Drive dept. store with a $4,500 designer bag. The client claimed she absent-mindedly walked out without paying and, therefore, never intended to steal it. But the management of the store didn’t see it that way.

The client certainly did have a lot on her mind – she had recently graduated with an undergrad degree from a top-tier university, and had just been accepted to numerous Ivy League graduate schools. She also came from an affluent family and therefore could have easily afforded to pay for the bag. (Then again, actress Wynona Ryder was a multi-millionaire A-lister when she was arrested for shoplifting so many years ago, and admitted that she compulsively shoplifted because it was thrilling.)

In any event, the client hired LADALF’s #1 attorney Ninaz Saffari to represent her on a Pre-File basis, meaning that although the client had been arrested by Beverly Hills PD officers, the file had not yet been transferred to the DA’s Office for the filing of a formal criminal complaint (or so the client believed at the time).

Within minutes of being retained, Ninaz called the lead detective on the case, but he told her that he had indeed just transferred the file. The next day, the client was charged with felony Grand Theft (California Penal Code section 487).

Fortunately, however, by the time the client was arraigned, Ninaz had prepared a mitigation package of documents attesting to the client’s extraordinary academic achievements, her extremely bright future, etc. Because this was the client’s first time in legal trouble, the prosecutor was open to working out a civil compromise. To hedge her bets, Ninaz also convinced the lead detective to support this civil compromise proposal to the prosecutor.

Result: After paying the full retail price (including tax) for the bag, the client was given a relatively brief informal diversion program. After her successful completion thereof, the charge was dropped, and the client went on to the grad school of her choice. She was, of course, extremely grateful because a felony theft conviction would likely have derailed all her future plans.

“Paul” was Looking at Three Years in Prison for Felony Grand Theft; Dismissal after Diversion

People v. P.M. (LA Int’l Airport Ct. – 02/15):

“Paul” had been arrested and prosecuted for felony Grand Theft (California Penal Code section 487).

Ninaz relentlessly pushed the case towards trial, knowing that the accuser/so-called victim had major credibility problems. Ninaz also knew that the police and witnesses had made numerous conflicting and contradictory statements pertaining to the actual identification of Paul as the culprit.

Result: The prosecution caved in before the start of trial and made Paul a superb offer, which he took: informal diversion and two months of volunteer work followed by a dismissal of the entire case.

“Randy” Arrested for Felony Grand Theft, Facing Up to 3 Years; Case Dropped by LAPD

People v. R.P. (DTLA C.C.B. Ct. – 08/13):

“Randy” had been arrested by LAPD on suspicion of having committed felony Grand Theft. Their suspicions were seemingly confirmed after Randy allegedly confessed to the crime during his interrogation.

Fortunately, before the case was transferred to the DA’s Office for formal prosecution, Randy hired Ninaz who was able to work out what’s called a “no charge” deal with the LAPD and the victim.

Result: After Randy repaid the victim, LAPD declined to forward the case for prosecution.

The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm (LADALF)

Since being admitted to the California Bar in early March 2005, LADALF’s founding lawyer Ninaz Saffari has literally defended hundreds of clients (including juveniles) against practically every conceivable type of theft charge, including felony and misdemeanor Grand Theft cases. You would be hard pressed to find even one attorney in the entire county who can match her successful track record in defeating these cases.