Your First Call When
Charged With A Crime

Photo of Robert Ernenwein and Michelle A. Mathes

Your First Call When
Charged With A Crime

Photo of Robert Ernenwein and Michelle A. Mathes
Photo of Robert Ernenwein and Michelle A. Mathes

Were You Charged With A Theft Or Fraud-Related Offense?

Theft and fraud-related offenses are serious crimes in California, and you could face losing your freedom upon a conviction. Having one of our experienced criminal defense lawyers will benefit you.

Our skilled lawyers at Ernenwein & Mathes, LLP, have practiced criminal law for more than 60 years combined. Robert Ernenwein is a former deputy district attorney, and he knows what to expect from the prosecution. He will apply his knowledge to construct a creative strategy that guides you to the best possible resolution for your theft case. You can rely on us for an aggressive defense.

Defining Theft In California

Theft involves the unlawful taking of property from someone else. All criminal theft charges are serious, though the severity of the punishment depends on the value of what was stolen. Whether facing a misdemeanor or felony theft charge, having an effective criminal defense attorney on your side throughout the process can be the best way to avoid a costly criminal conviction.

Theft: The Basics

California Penal Code 484 makes any theft a crime. It also lists some of the ways someone can be found guilty of theft. These include:

  • Stealing, taking, carrying, leading or driving away someone else’s personal property
  • Fraudulently appropriating property that had been entrusted to you
  • Knowingly and purposely defrauding someone else of something of value through misrepresentation or pretense
  • Falsely reporting wealth to obtain credit or money or anything else valuable

The two important elements present in all of these circumstances are taking someone else’s property without using force.

California’s Penal Code goes on to define specific types of theft, based on how the property was taken and how valuable it was.

Petty Theft

California Penal Code 488 is a catchall provision that makes any theft of less than $950 a petty theft. While petty theft is usually a misdemeanor, it can be a felony charge if the defendant has a prior offense under Penal Code 666.

Grand Theft

Grand theft is defined under California Penal Code 487. In most cases, grand theft involves taking property valued at more than $950, taking either a car or a firearm, or taking the property directly from someone else’s person. Stealing certain kinds of foods can become grand theft if the amount stolen is over only $250. Additionally, if the property is taken from your employer, the $950 amount applies to the value of all property taken over a year.

In California, grand theft can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.


Embezzlement involves being entrusted with someone else’s property and then taking it from them without their permission. Embezzlement is a type of theft in California under Penal Code 503.


California Penal Code 459.5 states that shoplifting happens when you go into a store during the store’s regular business hours with the intent to take something valued at less than $950. Taking a store’s inventory in any other circumstance may be considered burglary.


In California, under Penal Code 459, entering a building with the intent to commit a theft or other felony is considered a burglary. Burglary can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the degree.

Penalties For Theft Convictions

If you are charged with theft in California, you can face serious repercussions if that charge turns into a conviction. Penalties depend on the crime, how much was taken and if you have had any prior criminal convictions.

As a misdemeanor, most theft charges carry a penalty of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. However, part of the penalty may include reimbursing the victim for the value of stolen property.

Felony theft crimes are much more serious. The penalties for grand theft could include up to three years in jail. In addition, a felony conviction may make it difficult to find a job even after serving your time. Felons may also be prohibited from owning a firearm or holding certain offices.

How To Defend Against A Charge For Theft In California

Numerous defenses can be raised to an accusation that you have committed theft in California. Which one will be the best for your case will, of course, depend on the circumstances surrounding your arrest and the details of what happened.

Consent Of The Owner

One defense you can raise is that the owner of the property that was allegedly stolen had actually given you permission to take it. This defense is most common against embezzlement charges.

Ownership Of The Property

Another common defense to raise is that the property that was allegedly stolen is actually yours. Because theft is defined as taking the property of someone else, if you are the rightful owner of the property, then you cannot have committed the crime of theft by taking it.

Mistake Or Lack Of Intent

Many theft crimes require that you knew and intentionally took the property. If you made a mistake or unintentionally took something, then you lack the required state of mind to have committed a crime of theft. This can be an effective defense against a claim of shoplifting.

The Many Different Faces Of Fraud In California

Because fraud is such a general term, it can mean a host of different things and apply to a wide range of conduct. Here is just a small assortment of the most common crimes that are based on fraud or can include fraudulent elements.


California Penal Code 470 makes it a crime to sign, alter or copy someone’s signature, knowing that you do not have the authority to do so, if you intend to defraud that person. This last requirement, the intention to defraud, makes forgery a classic example of a fraud-based crime.

Health Insurance Fraud

There are lots of ways to commit health insurance fraud. One of the most common is to simply make a claim for health insurance coverage for care that was never used or provided. California Penal Code 550 prohibits this and other activities that are meant to deceive health insurance providers to pocket the money from the claim.

Identity Theft

California Penal Code 530.5, which prohibits identity theft, is another example of fraud-based conduct that breaks the law. California’s identity theft law prohibits the willful obtaining of personal information and using it for unlawful purposes. This deceptive act is typically done to take money or property.


A less obvious example of a fraudulent act is when someone commits perjury. California Penal Code 118 prohibits willfully saying that something is true when you know it is not, while under oath or under penalty of perjury. While this might not seem like fraud, it actually highlights how far fraud can reach: Perjury is still a deceiving act that leads to your own gain.

Defenses To Fraud

Numerous effective defenses can be raised when you are charged with committing a fraudulent act. Some of these defenses challenge the sufficiency of the prosecutor’s evidence, while others raise issues with how the police or other law enforcement gathered the evidence that is being used against you.

Lack Of Intent To Defraud

Committing fraud requires you to have the intention of defrauding someone, and it is up to the prosecutor to prove that you had this intention beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor has to line up a series of facts that show the defendant’s intent. If there is an alternative explanation for those facts, you may be able to prevent the prosecutor from showing you had an intent to defraud.

Unreasonable Search Or Seizure

The Fourth Amendment protects you by prohibiting law enforcement from executing a search or seizing property unreasonably. If they violate this rule, whatever evidence they obtained from their unlawful search or seizure will not be allowed in court, which can doom their ability to prove you did the deed.


Entrapment is a restraint on how the police can investigate a crime. Law enforcement in the U.S. cannot coerce you into committing a crime – they can only prosecute you if you did it of your own accord. Where the line falls between vigorous investigation and coercing you into doing something you do not want to do, though, is not always clear. Unlike with the Fourth Amendment, an entrapment defense does not just exclude certain pieces of evidence from trial – it leads to an acquittal.

Mistaken Identity

Many cases of fraud, particularly identity theft, involve multiple layers of stolen identities: Person A steals the identities of B, C and D, and then uses B’s identity to steal the identities of E, F and G. If your identity was stolen and used in a crime, you could face identity theft and fraud charges, even though you did nothing wrong and are a victim yourself. Proving that it was not actually you who was behind the second round of identity thefts, however, is not always easy.

Experienced Theft Attorneys In Southern California

For decades, our attorneys at Ernenwein & Mathes, LLP, have provided professional legal guidance for Californians. We offer creative, aggressive defense strategies to protect the freedom and innocence of our clients.

Contact our Torrance office at 424-552-3901 for your free consultation. You can also contact us by completing this online contact form.

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