Is theft a felony?

When is theft considered a felony? What are the penalties? What is the minimum sentence to expect for a felony theft conviction? What do courts take into consideration in making this decision?

When is it a felony?
The crime of theft involves unlawfully taking the property of another person with the intent to permanently - or even temporarily - deprive that person of the property. In other words, you don't have to keep the property in order to be convicted of theft - you can be convicted of theft even if you possess the stolen property for only a short period of time. In order to be convicted of theft, you also have to know that the property belongs to another person.

Theft is a broad category that includes such crimes as larceny, shoplifting, grand theft auto, and embezzlement. While a theft can result in a misdemeanor charge, depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding the case, there are many instances where theft results in a felony charge, which is much more serious, as the potential penalties and consequences are more severe than for a misdemeanor conviction. (More information about felony vs. misdemeanor)

Whether a theft results in a felony or misdemeanor charge can depend on your criminal background. For instance, if you have no prior criminal convictions, you have a better chance at being charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony. If you already have had multiple theft convictions, however, you risk a distinct possibility of being charged with a felony.

Value of items stolen
The distinction between felony and misdemeanor theft also usually depends on the value of the item(s) stolen. If there is more than one item stolen, then the total value of all of the items stolen will be used in determining the classification of the theft crime. Many states classify the different levels of theft crimes depending on the value of the property involved in the crime. Most state laws set a minimum value level of the property stolen in order to distinguish between felony and misdemeanor theft. For example, in some states, you cannot be charged with felony theft unless the value of the item(s) stolen exceeds $400, $500, or some other prescribed monetary limit. If the value of the property stolen is less than $200, for example, you may be charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Likewise, if you steal a brand-new automobile, you are likely to be charged with felony theft. Some states refer to this distinction between theft crimes based on property value as the different between "petty theft" and "grand theft."

Types of items stolen
Some thefts involving certain types of property are automatically felonies, regardless of your criminal background or the value of the property. For instance, theft of a gun is often a felony under state laws.

Sentences for a conviction
A misdemeanor theft conviction often involves relatively low fines, and sometimes a short jail term. In many cases, though, a misdemeanor theft charge will not result in any term of imprisonment. You also may have to pay restitution to the victim, or pay back the value of the property that you stole. On the other hand, a felony theft conviction can not only impact your future employability in some employment sectors, as well as your opportunities for education and/or housing, but may result in substantial penalties and fines, including significant jail time, usually in excess of one year. Plus, a felony theft conviction may affect certain civil rights, such as your ability to vote, to hold public office, and get insurance coverage.