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You were caught stealing or are being accused of stealing. The charge is petty theft. Since the charge includes the word "petty," it must be no big deal, right?
Wrong. You definitely do need a lawyer.
Petty Theft is Not a Petit Problem
Petty theft is sometimes known as petit theft from the French word for small, petit. The value limits vary from state to state, but generally it is classified as "small" because it involves stealing something of relatively limited value.
Still, it is a crime. Specifically, it's a misdemeanor, meaning that you are still subject to a maximum sentence of one year in jail.
Petty theft qualifies as a crime of moral turpitude for immigration purposes. For non-citizens the consequences of a conviction can go far beyond the sentence served and a smudge on your record. It can jeopardize your ability to remain in the country legally or to later become a citizen.
It is especially important for non-Americans accused of crimes here to try to resolve their cases with immigration in mind. Not every attorney understands immigration consequences of criminal cases. But many firms do have the two types of lawyers working together. It's a good idea to seek representation from someone who understands the intersection of these two areas of the law.
Right to Representation
Even if you cannot afford to hire an attorney, you may be entitled to representation. In Gideon, a seminal case in American legal history, a unanimous Supreme Court wrote, "in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him."
The precise rules vary from state to state, but generally speaking, if you are indigent and accused of a crime that could subject you to jail time, you are entitled to court-appointed counsel. Public defenders and court-appointed attorneys have overwhelming case loads and limited time to coddle clients. But they often also have a lot of experience, gained in the trenches, and can handle your petty theft charge adeptly.
Keep the Future in Mind
If you are not entitled to counsel, do hire a lawyer. Do not dismiss this petty theft charge as no big thing. The prosecution is extremely unlikely to do so ... unless, of course, your attorney can negotiate a great resolution.
Everyone needs an attorney when charged with a crime. There are cumulative effects of conviction. Multiple convictions lead to increasingly severe sentences.
So even if you swear you will never find yourself in this position again, you still should absolutely not try to resolve a criminal case without help. That's a risk that no one can afford to take.