Being accused of shoplifting is a frightening experience, even if you have not been charged with a crime yet. You may walk around with the fear that one day the police will show up at your home or work and slap handcuffs on your wrists. You may wait weeks, months, or even years before being charged with a theft crime, but it is never too late to start working on your defense. In some cases, you may even be surprised to discover that you have passed the statute of limitations for a shoplifting charge.
What Is a Statute of Limitations?
In California, in order to be placed on trial for a crime, you must first be arrested by the police and then be charged by a district attorney’s office. Whether your case is pursued in court or dismissed can come down to a district attorney, who may delay filing charges due to a lack of evidence, other priorities, or even a clerical error. However, the DA does not have an unlimited amount of time to file charges against you.
This time limit or deadline is referred to as a statute of limitations (SOL), which will vary in length depending on the type of charge you are facing. A SOL is designed to protect California citizens from being unfairly charged with a crime years after it was allegedly committed. If charges are not filed quickly, evidence may spoil, witnesses may become hard to track down, and the circumstances of the crime can drastically change. Just as the prosecution needs time to prepare a case against a defendant, defendants also deserve time to prepare. If the prosecution waited years to file charges, then it could unfairly benefit them while also making it difficult for defendants and their lawyers to build a defense.
What Is the Statute of Limitations for Theft Crimes?
There are several different types of theft crimes in California, but they are largely categorized into petty and grand theft. Shoplifting can be placed in either category depending on the value of the allegedly stolen property. For property worth less than $950, the crime is considered petty theft. For property valued at $950 or more, you can be charged with grand theft.
Petty theft is typically charged as a misdemeanor, but it can be a wobbler if you have a prior charge, meaning you can face either misdemeanor or felony charges. In turn, grand theft is also a wobbler. The distinction between misdemeanor and felony is a major factor in the statute of limitations.
Misdemeanor theft crimes have a statute of limitations of one year in California according to Penal Code 802, while felony theft crimes have a statute of limitations of four years according to Penal Code 801.5. If the district attorney fails to file charges within that time period, then you cannot be convicted of shoplifting.
With wobblers, the deadline will depend on what charge the DA chooses to pursue, which will be based on which scenario they think they can win. If they only have enough evidence for a misdemeanor charge, or the value of the stolen property is below $950, then they may only have one year to file a misdemeanor charge. It is only in more serious cases that they will pursue a felony conviction and can abide by the four-year statute of limitations.
Why You Should Call an Attorney Today
No matter how much time is left before the statute of limitations passes, it is important for you to contact an attorney as soon as possible if you have been accused of a crime, even for one as seemingly minor as shoplifting. It is never wise to assume that the prosecution has simply forgotten about your case. The OC District Attorney may be collecting witness statements, gathering evidence, or preparing their case against you. Your best option is to contact an OC criminal defense lawyer as early as possible to begin preparing your own defense.
At Law Office of Michael L. Guisti, our legal team is well-versed in providing strong and thorough legal guidance in a variety of theft crime cases. We have extensive knowledge of California’s legal system and can advocate for your best interests in an Orange County criminal court. To speak to us in a free consultation, call our office at (714) 530-9690 or toll-free at (888) 478-8999.