California “Grand Theft” Laws | Penal Code 487 PC

Charged under California Penal Code 487 pc, grand theft is committed when someone steals property (or services) from another without consent having an intrinsic value exceeding $950.[1]  The value of services, labor, or property must exceed $950 or the crime is petty theft.[2]  To establish the value of property or labor, the amount is measured on its fair market value and not based on the value to any particular individual.[3]  For instance, the sentimental value of an item to a particular person is not considered when calculating its value.

The crime can also be accomplished using fraud, embezzlement, false pretenses, or grand theft auto.  The government may present multiple theft theories to a jury.  However, there is no requirement the jury must agree with the prosecutor’s theory.  Instead, all the jury must agree on is that an unlawful taking of property occurred.[4]  Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for someone arrested for grand theft to face additional charges of burglary, petty theft, shoplifting, receiving stolen property, and even robbery if force or threats were used to carry out the theft.

Law enforcement typically makes a felony arrest with bail set at $20,000.  However, grand theft is a wobbler meaning the prosecutor holds discretion when electing to charge someone with either a felony or misdemeanor.  Thus, although a person has been arrested for felony grand theft, they may only be formally charged with a misdemeanor.  By retaining a Criminal Defense Attorney early, an attorney may be able to contact the prosecutor before formal filing to convince them to file a misdemeanor charge instead of a felony charge.


What Must the Prosecutor Prove for Grand Theft Charges?

Under CALCRIM 1801, to prove someone is guilty of grand theft under PC 487, the prosecutor holds the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. You took property not belonging to you;
  1. You did not have the owner’s consent;
  1. You moved the property however slight;
  1. You intended to deprive the owner permanently or for an extended period of time depriving them from significant enjoyment;
  1. The fair market value of the property or labor was in excess of $950.[5]

Legal Defenses to Grand Theft Charges

  • Intent: All theft crimes, including grand theft, require a person to harbor the specific intent to steal.  Thus, alleged grand theft accusations carried out by accident or misfortune will not be punishable by law.  In other words, if someone innocently forgot to pay for an item after leaving a store, then they did not harbor the specific intent to steal it.
  • Amount: As an essential element, the good(s) or service(s) must exceed $950 to accomplish grand theft charges.  The prosecutor typically relies upon the exaggerated claims of the accuser when litigating this element. Additionally, the value must be determined at the moment the crime was committed and not consider any potential increase over time after the crime was committed.  To undermine the government’s claims, it’s important to determine the price of the property in other localities, wholesale price, and perhaps expert opinion in an effort to argue the value is at or below $950.
  • Claim of Right: Asserting a good-faith claim of right is an affirmative defense used to negate the “property of another” element.  To succeed under this defense, it must be established that a person believed in good faith that he or she had a right to the specific property they openly took.[6]  The important aspect is whether someone was acting with good faith.  The application of the claim of right defense additionally supports someone’s good-faith intentions even if the belief is mistaken or unreasonable.
  • Consent: The crime of grand theft is not committed if the owner of the property gives consent.  While consent can constitute an absolute defense, it may be limited within scope.  For instance, borrowing property from someone longer than permitted.  Although initially consensual, the extended period transitioned the act into a crime.  Any consent defense typically requires the owner’s statement in support of this claim or a defendant should gather text messages, social media posts, or witnesses to the property owner giving consent as supporting evidence.

Punishment & Sentencing for PC 487

PC 487 is punishable by either a felony or a misdemeanor.  A misdemeanor carries up to one (1) year in the county jail.  A felony sentence carries up to three (3) years in county jail.[7]  The court will also order restitution to be paid back to your accuser for any financial loss.  In addition, grand theft charges are a crime of moral turpitude and may result in adverse effects on those holding a professional license or seeking US citizenship.  Sentencing enhancement may apply if the value of the property or service is more than $100,000.  Consequently, a conviction would require a mandatory state prison sentence.

Contact Us to Schedule a Free Consultation

Whether you have been charged with felony or misdemeanor penal code 487 pc, there is no question that an experienced theft crimes attorney can make all the difference in the outcome of your case.  Our offices represent clients accused in Orange County, Los Angeles, Ventura, San Diego, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties.  If you’ve been charged with grand theft under PC 487, contact an Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney at the Law Offices of John D. Rogers for a free confidential consultation concerning your rights and defenses.


[1] Penal Code 487 PC – Grand theft defined. (“Grand theft is theft committed in any of the following cases: (a) When the money, labor, or real or personal property taken is of a value exceeding four hundred dollars ($400) except as provided in subdivision (b).”)

[2] Penal Code 487, subdivision (b)(3), effective January 1, 2010, created the threshold value to qualify the taking as grand theft if the money, labor, or real or personal property taken aggregates $950 or more.

[3] See People v. Lizarraga (1954) 122 Cal.App.2d 436; and People v. Latham (1941) 43 Cal.App.2d 35.

[4] See People v. Counts (1995) 31 Cal.App.4th 785, 792-793; see also CALCRIM No. 1861.

[5] See CALCRIM No. 1801:

[6] CALCRIM No. 1863 Defense to Theft or Robbery: Claim of Right (“The defendant obtained property under a claim of right if (he/ she) believed in good faith that (he/she) had a right to the specific property or a specific amount of money, and (he/she) openly took it. In deciding whether the defendant believed that (he/she) had a right to the property and whether (he/she) held that belief in good faith, consider all the facts known to (him/her) at the time (he/she) obtained the property, along with all the other evidence in the case. The defendant may hold a belief in good faith even if the belief is mistaken or unreasonable. But if the defendant was aware of facts that made that belief completely unreasonable, you may conclude that the belief was not held in good faith.”)

[7] California Penal Code 489 – grand theft punishment. (“Grand theft is punishable as follows: (a) If the grand theft involves the theft of a firearm, by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, or two or three years.  (b) If the grand theft involves a violation of Section 487a, by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170, or by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars ($5,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment. The proceeds of this fine shall be allocated to the Bureau of Livestock Identification to be used, upon appropriation by the Legislature, for purposes relating to the investigation of cases involving grand theft of any animal or animals, or of the carcass or carcasses of, or any portion of the carcass or carcasses of, any animal specified in Section 487a.  (c) In all other cases, by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.”)

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