What is Petty Larceny?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Petty larceny is the modern spelling of crimes classified in the 13th century or earlier in Europe. The initial term was petit larceny and the crime then and today usually means "small thefts." Various jurisdictions determine what small or petty means, and some examples include thefts under $100 or $500 US Dollars (USD). Petty larceny is usually considered a lesser crime, qualifying as a misdemeanor in many regions, and it is contrasted to grand larceny, which involves stealing property that is worth much more.

Pick pocketing money from a wallet is considered petty larceny.
Pick pocketing money from a wallet is considered petty larceny.

There are many different ways petty larceny can be committed. Stealing a knickknack from someone’s home could qualify, even if a person ultimately returns it. Grabbing someone’s purse or wallet could be petty theft if the amount contained in it is deemed small or petit by a jurisdiction. Taking a backpack, stealing an iPod®, shoplifting, or running away with someone’s coat are all potential examples of petty theft.

Jail time is one possible consequence for committing petty larceny.
Jail time is one possible consequence for committing petty larceny.

Usually petty theft encompasses at least two acts. These are gaining possession of an item that doesn’t belong to the thief and then transporting that item from its present location. It’s easy to see how petty larceny might involve additional infractions. Grabbing someone to steal a wallet or purse might be assault and/or battery. Being on someone’s property without permission could be petty theft and trespassing. As charges increase, so would severity of sentence and/or fines.

In the United States, sentences for people who are convicted of petty crimes vary widely from one jurisdiction to another.
In the United States, sentences for people who are convicted of petty crimes vary widely from one jurisdiction to another.

It’s easy to dismiss petty larceny as a minor crime, and courts may treat small thefts as misdemeanors, but they don’t always. A person can’t be sure such a crime won’t end up resulting in both jail time and fines. Due to the nature of the crime and the minimal value of the stolen item, jail sentences rarely exceed a year. Again, people must be aware that comments on sentencing won’t apply everywhere.

It gets worse if people have committed more than one petty theft. A habitual purse-snatcher, for instance, might be viewed as a felon for committing multiple larcenous acts. In such cases, jail time is almost always going to be the result, and it could be significant.

Even when petty theft is considered a misdemeanor, legal representation is important to those charged with this crime. Potentially, a first offense of petty larceny might be treated differently and minimum sentencing might apply, given a person’s true regret over the action. Sometimes it’s even possible to clear charges and convictions from a criminal record, particularly if a person who committed small acts of larceny did so only once or twice and was under the age of 18. An attorney may help facilitate the path to this, and he or she could also plea bargain charges down or work with a prosecutor to reduce sentencing.

Shoplifting is typically considered petty larceny.
Shoplifting is typically considered petty larceny.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

Phaedrus

I had a friend back in high school who became really good at committing petty larceny. He had all sorts of ways of hiding stolen merchandise, and he usually got away with it. His luck finally ran out and a store detective caught him with around $100 worth of jewelry. They charged him with petty larceny and he had to spend some time in a juvenile facility.

The problem was, his early days of petty larceny made it easier for him to take bigger risks. He was later found sitting on his neighbor's front lawn, surrounded by $4,000 in rare coins. He spent 5 years in prison for that felony crime. Petty larceny may not sound like much of a crime, but if people don't intervene and punish young criminals, it can escalate to a much more serious mindset later.

Cageybird

I never would have made the connection between "petit" and "petty". I grew thinking petty larceny was called that because the crimes were pointless and selfish, like someone being petty in general.

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