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An arrest for theft is scary and you probably have a lot of concerns. Will you go to jail? What will happen to your family?

A theft occurs when one person takes the property of another without permission. There are many different types of theft, depending on your state's laws, the items involved, and the value of those items. As a result, the punishment and penalties can be very different as well. For example, someone accused of burglary (commonly called breaking and entering) who doesn't actually steal something would probably spend less time in jail than someone who commits grand theft auto (steals a car). Numerous other factors, including any defenses you may use, will also affect the amount of time you spend in jail. One of the biggest steps you can take to keep yourself out of jail is to hire an attorney. It is your attorney's job to see that your legal rights are protected throughout your ordeal, as well as to ensure that all your evidence is presented in the best possible way.

Most Common Types of Theft

Burglary: The breaking and entering of a person into someone else's home at night, with the intent to commit a felony inside the home. Usually that felony is larceny or robbery although it could be any felony (e.g., murder or rape). However, many states have adapted this rule by ignoring the requirement that the burglary take place at night or in a home.

Robbery: When someone takes or attempts to take someone else's property by force or by creating fear. Mugging is an example of robbery that typically takes place in a public location such as on a street or in a park.

Larceny:When a person moves someone else's personal property without permission with the intent to take it permanently. Grand larceny involves taking higher valued property. Frequently the threshold is $1,000 although this can vary from state to state.

Grand Theft Auto: The act or attempted act of stealing someone else's motor vehicle.

Punishment and Penalties

In most states, theft is punishable by jail time. The average jail sentence for theft is 1.5 to 3 years. However, there are many variables, and the length of the sentence will depend on what was stolen and how it was stolen. For example, robbery typically carries a longer jail sentence since it involves a direct confrontation with another person, while a shoplifter may only get probation.

Circumstances that may lengthen your jail sentence include:

  • Using or possessing a weapon during the theft (almost anything used in a threatening manner could be considered a weapon)
  • Having personal contact with the victims such as hitting them or threatening them
  • Burglarizing a building that is occupied
  • Taking items that are very expensive or rare
  • Running from police
  • Intimidating witnesses

Unfortunately, this is only a partial list. There are other circumstances that may affect your punishment as well. Don't be too discouraged if any of these scenarios apply to you! An experienced lawyer can help you address these issues and limit the damage they may cause to your case.

Defenses to Your Theft Arrest

On the other hand, there are some situations that will either excuse you from any wrongdoing or at least lessen your punishment. Again, a lawyer may be beneficial here to make sure attention is drawn to your defenses so that the judge and jury are aware and can make a fair decision.

Circumstances that may shorten or eliminate your jail sentence:

  • Legitimate ownership (proof of ownership will be required)
  • Being a first time offender
  • Youth
  • Mental instability
  • Remorse and repentance
  • Returning the stolen goods to the owner

If any of this applies to you, the good or the bad, make sure you tell your lawyer. Be sure to include any other information that may go along with this. They aren't allowed to tell anyone what you tell them, and they can use the information to avoid any disasters during your trial.

The Legal Process

After a theft is reported, the police will try to get some clues as to who did it by asking witnesses and looking at any evidence like fingerprints or video tapes. At some point, the police may start questioning suspects and even arrest someone who they think did it. If you find yourself being questioned by the police or arrested, don't hesitate to contact a criminal defense lawyer immediately. It is your right to have a lawyer present when you're being questioned! He or she will help you navigate the legal process which may include a police line-up where witnesses will attempt to identify the thief, more questioning by the police, and an arrest. For more information on the criminal arrest and court process, see here.

After an arrest, the accused has the opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty. If the plea is not guilty but the government feels they have enough evidence to prove guilty, the case will proceed to trial and the accused must prepare a defense. A defendant can call witnesses and present evidence to prove his or her innocence. If you choose to hire a lawyer, the lawyer will do a lot of the digging for information for you and will decide on the best tactics to use throughout the course of your trial. Presenting this evidence well is one of the most important parts of winning your case and your lawyer's focus is just that. For more on the role of your lawyer, see here.

Your Lawyer

The criminal arrest process for theft frequently relies heavily on witnesses who may not have perfect memories or who may succumb to the suggestions of others, intentional or not. If you don't feel confident exposing these flaws to the jury and judge, you may want to consider hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney. Your lawyer can help you protect your rights and give you the best chance at winning your case.

Before meeting with your lawyer, it's important to prepare yourself and make notes so that no detail is missed. You should consider everything relevant such as:

  • Where you were when the crime took place. The most often asked question when someone is arrested for a crime is where you were when the crime took place. Any details about your whereabouts are important here. You should tell your lawyer where you were and who you were with so that he or she can make sure that plays a big role in your defense.
  • The exact details of your day on the day of the crime. What you were wearing, how you did your hair, where you went, what car you were driving, and who you were with may help you out in the case of a false identification. People's memories are not perfect, and remembering the small details may help you prove that it wasn't actually you, even if the witness truly thinks it was.
  • Any paper evidence of your whereabouts. Receipts, parking tickets, admission tickets — and even phone records — are good proof that you were otherwise occupied when the crime took place. The more proof the better in these situations.
  • Character evidence. Holding a steady job and being an upstanding member of the community say a lot about a person's ethics. If the evidence against you is sparse, juries are less apt to believe a "good" person will steal.
  • Explanations. Sometimes, there are just bad coincidences in a case. Maybe you are accused of mugging someone and stealing $1,000 and you coincidentally deposited $990 into your bank account a few days later or maybe you own something that looks remarkably like an item that was stolen. Coincidences can happen, but it's important to know that the prosecution will absolutely find these things out. It is much better to inform your attorney ahead of time so that he or she can prepare for questions surrounding these coincidences. A prepared attorney can handle many bad circumstances if given enough notice.
  • The legal process you had before you had an attorney. Lastly, you should tell your attorney what has happened to you before your attorney was in the picture, starting with your first interactions with the police (usually questioning or an arrest). Some illegal procedures by the police may be important to your case, and your lawyer may be able to make sure your rights have not been violated.

An experienced criminal defense lawyer may be able to help you reduce your jail sentence by working with you to create a defense based on your strengths and counteracting any negatives. For example, your lawyer may be able to strike a deal with the prosecutors if you have information about another crime or other participants in this theft. Your lawyer may also be able to have confessions or answers to police thrown out if they were obtained illegally. The more information your lawyer has, the better. You never know what will help!

After you've told your lawyer everything you can think of, you may also have some questions for your attorney like:

  • Can I get out of jail on bail?
  • What if I've already spoken to the police?
  • What if I've already confessed to the police?
  • What if I didn't do it, but I know who did?
  • Can I testify for myself?
  • What if I know the witnesses are lying?
  • Can I tell everyone what the victim did to me?

You may have many more questions for your lawyer as your case goes on. Feel free to ask! In most situations, your attorney cannot reveal anything you tell them and the more information he or she has, the better.

Being arrested for theft is frightening for anyone. The legal process is overwhelming and can be confusing at times. Doing your own research and hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney can save you a lot of stress down the road.