Petit Larceny

The most common theft charge in Virginia is petit larceny. Larceny is defined in Virginia as the wrongful taking of the goods of another without the owner's consent and with the intention to permanently deprive the owner of possession of the goods.

The most common type of petit larceny is basic shoplifting, although there are other ways in which a person might be charged, and other types of criminal charges that might be brought in some instances. There is also another law that deals specifically with shoplifting, but often this offense is charged as simple petit larceny.

Following is a brief description of the various forms of petit larceny, the type of punishment one might face if convicted of petit larceny, and some defenses apply in certain cases.

Types of Petit Larceny

Larceny from the Person: Any theft from the person of another where the value is less than $5 is petit larceny; any such theft where the value is more than $5 is a felony charge of grand larceny (see the article on grand larceny for a full description of this offense). The most common example of this offense is pick-pocketing.

Petit Larceny based on Value: This offense is charged under Virginia code section 18.2-96 and is basically just a theft crime for anything valued at $200 or less. The most common form of this offense is shoplifting.

Punishment

Punishment on a conviction for petit larceny can vary greatly depending on a huge number of factors. Petit larceny is a class one misdemeanor with a maximum punishment of 12 months in jail and $2500. Only in a tiny fraction cases would a judge sentence a person to a period of several months or more in jail, but short jail sentences are quite common, even for minor cases.

One important factor that prosecutors and judges consider is the criminal record of the accused. If a person has been convicted of a larceny crime before, the sentence could be much more severe. Judges will sometimes sentence a person to just a fine for a first offense, but a week or more in jail on a second. If a person has been convicted of petit larceny two times before, they can be charged with grand larceny, for which the maximum punishment is up to 10 years in prison, so prior convictions are very important. Judges may also consider prior convictions for other offenses as well, although these will usually be considered less important than prior theft crimes.

Another detail that is often important is where the offense took place. While the legal system tries to make punishment more or less consistent throughout the Commonwealth, there are still variations between jurisdictions. In some counties, judges will routinely give at least one day in jail for a conviction of petit larceny, while in other areas simple fines are more common. For this reason, having an attorney who practices frequently in a particular court is very important.

In addition to the criminal penalties such as fines and jail time, a separate law allows a store to collect a civil judgement against a person who is convicted of shoplifting. Under Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-44.4(A), a merchant may collect a judgment of two times the unpaid retail value of the merchandise, with a minimum of $50 and a maximum of $350 (as long as all merchandise was recovered). This means that if you are convicted of petit larceny, you will probably get a letter a short time later from a lawyer demanding you pay the store several hundred dollars. If you refuse, the lawyer for the store can take you to court and ask the judge to order you to pay those civil penalties and even an additional $150 for the costs of the lawyer.

Petit Larceny

The most common theft charge in Virginia is petit larceny. Larceny is defined in Virginia as the wrongful taking of the goods of another without the owner's consent and with the intention to permanently deprive the owner of possession of the goods.

The most common type of petit larceny is basic shoplifting, although there are other ways in which a person might be charged, and other types of criminal charges that might be brought in some instances. There is also another law that deals specifically with shoplifting, but often this offense is charged as simple petit larceny.

Following is a brief description of the various forms of petit larceny, the type of punishment one might face if convicted of petit larceny, and some defenses apply in certain cases.

Punishment

Punishment on a conviction for petit larceny can vary greatly depending on a huge number of factors. Petit larceny is a class one misdemeanor with a maximum punishment of 12 months in jail and $2500. Only in a tiny fraction cases would a judge sentence a person to a period of several months or more in jail, but short jail sentences are quite common, even for minor cases.

One important factor that prosecutors and judges consider is the criminal record of the accused. If a person has been convicted of a larceny crime before, the sentence could be much more severe. Judges will sometimes sentence a person to just a fine for a first offense, but a week or more in jail on a second. If a person has been convicted of petit larceny two times before, they can be charged with grand larceny, for which the maximum punishment is up to 10 years in prison, so prior convictions are very important. Judges may also consider prior convictions for other offenses as well, although these will usually be considered less important than prior theft crimes.

Another detail that is often important is where the offense took place. While the legal system tries to make punishment more or less consistent throughout the Commonwealth, there are still variations between jurisdictions. In some counties, judges will routinely give at least one day in jail for a conviction of petit larceny, while in other areas simple fines are more common. For this reason, having an attorney who practices frequently in a particular court is very important.

In addition to the criminal penalties such as fines and jail time, a separate law allows a store to collect a civil judgement against a person who is convicted of shoplifting. Under Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-44.4(A), a merchant may collect a judgment of two times the unpaid retail value of the merchandise, with a minimum of $50 and a maximum of $350 (as long as all merchandise was recovered). This means that if you are convicted of petit larceny, you will probably get a letter a short time later from a lawyer demanding you pay the store several hundred dollars. If you refuse, the lawyer for the store can take you to court and ask the judge to order you to pay those civil penalties and even an additional $150 for the costs of the lawyer.

Defenses

Some of the defenses available are found in the basic definition of petit larceny. For example, there has to be an actual “taking” of something. So, for example, if a woman is stopped in a store with something in her purse and then charged for petit larceny, a prosecutor must prove that she intended to take the item out of the store and keep it. She might argue, for instance, that she intended to pay for it and simply put it in her purse to keep her hands free to continue shopping. This success of this sort of defense would depend on all the other details of the case, but it illustrates how a prosecutor must prove several separate things in a case to win.

Another element that must be proved is that the person charged intended to permanently deprive the rightful owner of possession. So, for example, where one person “borrows” an item without permission, but intends on returning the item at some point, he is not guilty of larceny.

In addition to specific legal defenses, some courts have created so-called “first offender programs” that allow a person with a clean record to enter into a program to do community service and take classes. Where the program is successfully completed, the judge will dismiss the charge without a conviction. There are many factors which determine whether or not the court offers such a program, if a person is eligible, and if the program is the best strategy in a given case.

Related Laws
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-97 - larceny of certain animals and poultry
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-98 - larceny of bank notes and checks
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-102 - unauthorized use of an animal, aircraft, vehicle, or boat
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-103 - concealing or taking possession of merchandise (shoplifting)
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-107 - theft or destruction of public records
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-108 - receiving stolen goods
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-111 - embezzlement

Some of the defenses available are found in the basic definition of petit larceny. For example, there has to be an actual “taking” of something. So, for example, if a woman is stopped in a store with something in her purse and then charged for petit larceny, a prosecutor must prove that she intended to take the item out of the store and keep it. She might argue, for instance, that she intended to pay for it and simply put it in her purse to keep her hands free to continue shopping. This success of this sort of defense would depend on all the other details of the case, but it illustrates how a prosecutor must prove several separate things in a case to win.

Another element that must be proved is that the person charged intended to permanently deprive the rightful owner of possession. So, for example, where one person “borrows” an item without permission, but intends on returning the item at some point, he is not guilty of larceny.

In addition to specific legal defenses, some courts have created so-called “first offender programs” that allow a person with a clean record to enter into a program to do community service and take classes. Where the program is successfully completed, the judge will dismiss the charge without a conviction. There are many factors which determine whether or not the court offers such a program, if a person is eligible, and if the program is the best strategy in a given case.

Related Laws
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-97 - larceny of certain animals and poultry
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-98 - larceny of bank notes and checks
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-102 - unauthorized use of an animal, aircraft, vehicle, or boat
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-103 - concealing or taking possession of merchandise (shoplifting)
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-107 - theft or destruction of public records
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-108 - receiving stolen goods
  • Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-111 - embezzlement