Theft Law & Legal Definition


Generally, a person commits the crime of theft of property if he or she:

  1. Knowingly obtains or exerts unauthorized control over the property of another, with intent to deprive the owner of his or her property;
  2. Knowingly obtains by deception control over the property of another, with intent to deprive the owner of his or her property; or
  3. Knowingly obtains or exerts control over property in the custody of a law enforcement agency which was explicitly represented to the person by an agent of the law enforcement agency as being stolen.

Without proof of intent to deprive, no criminal act has occurred. There must be an element of dishonesty which may be revealed from the words or actions of the perpetrator. In California, the Supreme Court has held that proof that a defendant intended to take property only temporarily, but for so extended a period of time as to deprive the owner of a major portion of its value or enjoyment, satisfies the intent element of a theft prosecution in California.

A person commits the crime of theft of services if:

  1. He intentionally obtains services known by him to be available only for compensation by deception, threat, false token or other means to avoid payment for the services; or
  2. Having control over the disposition of services of others to which he is not entitled, he knowingly diverts those services to his own benefit or to the benefit of another not entitled to such services.

To be convicted of theft by taking someone must unlawfully take, appropriate or carry away any property of another with intent of depriving him of the property. A person commits the offense of theft by receiving if he or she receives, retains, or disposes of stolen property of another person that he/she knew or should have known was stolen. Theft is often classified into degrees of misdemeanors or felonies carrying varied penalties according to the value of the item stolen. State laws vary, so local laws should be consulted for the specific requirements in your area.

Example of a State Statute ( Alabama) on Theft of property in the first degree

In Alabama, theft of property in the first degree is a Class B felony. Theft of property which exceeds two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500) in value, or property of any value taken from the person of another, theft of a motor vehicle, regardless of its value, theft by common plan or scheme by one or more persons where the object of the common plan or scheme is to sell or transfer the property to another person or business and the aggregate value of the property stolen is at least one thousand dollars ($1,000) within a 180-day period all amounts to theft of property in the first degree. The relevant law as it appears in the statute:

Code of Ala. § 13A-8-3. Theft of property; first degree.

(a) The theft of property which exceeds two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500) in value, or property of any value taken from the person of another, constitutes theft of property in the first degree.

(b) The theft of a motor vehicle, regardless of its value, constitutes theft of property in the first degree.

(c) (1) The theft of property which involves all of the following constitutes theft of property in the first degree:

a. The theft is a common plan or scheme by one or more persons; and

b. The object of the common plan or scheme is to sell or transfer the property to another person or business that buys the property with knowledge or reasonable belief that the property is stolen; and

c. The aggregate value of the property stolen is at least one thousand dollars ($1,000) within a 180-day period.

(2) If the offense under this subsection involves two or more counties, prosecution may be commenced in any one of those counties in which the offense occurred or in which the property was disposed.

(d) Theft of property in the first degree is a Class B felony.