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Petty theft - don't let the name fool you.
Theft is a state crime, and therefore determining whether criminal theft is petty or grand differs by state. Generally, classification is determined by the dollar amount of the item stolen, with $500-$1,000 usually being the upper limit for petty theft. Though this is the general definition of petty theft, all generalities stop there. Punishment for petty theft runs the gamut, from probation to life in prison.
First Time Offenders
For first time offenders, petty theft is often a misdemeanor. Depending on the circumstances, if this is a first offense, punishment may be as lenient as a diversion program, probation, or community service. However, since petty theft is at least a misdemeanor, it can also be punishable by a fine and up to one year in jail.
If this isn't a first-time petty theft conviction, things can get a little dicier. Even though it may still be the same petty theft crime, the circumstances are now different, and the stakes may be higher. In a recent petty theft arrest in Virginia, a young man was arrested for his third petty theft, and held without bail for stealing a Mountain Dew, Snickers Bar, and a Zebra Cake, worth a total of $5. He died in his jail cell, awaiting trial.
Over half of the States have a Three Strikes law. If a defendant has two prior convictions, the third conviction, or the "third strike", leads to a mandatory prison sentence, set by state law, sometimes up to 25 years to life. Take, for instance, Curtis Wilkerson. Having had two prior convictions for robbery, he was arrested for stealing a pair of $2.50 plain white sport socks from a local department store, and ended up being fined $2,500 (restitution for the stolen socks), and sentenced to life in prison.
Petty Theft - A Crime of Moral Turpitude
Theft of all types is considered a crime of moral turpitude, which is a fancy way of saying that it's a crime society believes is unacceptably dishonest or immoral. As such, it can be used against you in a variety of ways, including as a means of determining deportation, disbarment, or impeaching any testimony you will ever give. Though these may not be seen as criminal punishments, they are punishments nonetheless. Add to this list the fact that you will need to list this misdemeanor on all future employment applications, and the potential to inflict more pain grows exponentially.
If you have been arrested for petty theft, give serious consideration to defending yourself against this crime. Though this may be your first strike, it may not be your last. Do not deprive yourself of a clean record if at all possible.