Common Crimes

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Definitions of Crime Types

Ever wonder what the difference between a robbery and a burglary is?  Or perhaps what differentiates theft by access card from full-blown identity theft, or what constitutes a "criminal threat?"  Here you will find easy-to-understand definitions of some common crimes, as well as the California Penal Code sections that define them.

This information is provided for educational purposes only, and is not intended as legal advice.

*Note: Under Penal Code section 148.5 (link opens in a new window), it is a misdemeanor to file a false police report, whether to sworn or non-sworn officers.

Burglary
Robbery
Petty Theft
Grand Theft
Theft by Access Card
Identity Theft
False Personation
Forgery
Vandalism
Criminal Threats ("Terrorist Threats")
Rape
Sexual Assault
Kidnapping

Burglary
"459. Every person who enters any house, room, apartment, tenement, shop, warehouse, store, mill, barn, stable, outhouse or other building, tent, vessel, as defined in Section 21 of the Harbors and Navigation Code, floating home, as defined in subdivision (d) of Section 18075.55 of the Health and Safety Code, railroad car, locked or sealed cargo container, whether or not mounted on a vehicle, trailer coach, as defined in Section 635 of the Vehicle Code, any house car, as defined in Section 362 of the Vehicle Code, inhabited camper, as defined in Section 243 of the Vehicle Code, vehicle as defined by the Vehicle Code, when the doors are locked, aircraft as defined by Section 21012 of the Public Utilities Code, or mine or any underground portion thereof, with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony is guilty of burglary. As used in this chapter, 'inhabited' means currently being used for dwelling purposes, whether occupied or not. A house, trailer, vessel designed for habitation, or portion of a building is currently being used for dwelling purposes if, at the time of the burglary, it was not occupied solely because a natural or other disaster caused the occupants to leave the premises."

Someone breaks into your home or business.  You're camping and someone steals things from your tent.  Your locked vehicle has items taken from inside of it (note that to be classified as burglary, the vehicle must be locked at the time of the incident; otherwise it is treated as a regular theft based on the value of the items taken).

The important element of this crime is intent.  To classify a crime as a burglary, deputies have to be able to show that there was an intent to steal something or to commit a felony.  A common snag that is come across quite often is when someone breaks into a vacant home.  Since there are no possessions to steal inside the home, intent often becomes difficult to prove unless parts of the home itself (such as doors or appliances) are stolen.  In these cases, the crime is classified as trespassing.

Also keep in mind that force is not necessary to be a burglary - you could leave your front door wide open and have someone walk right in and take your television, and you've just been burglarized.  Naturally, this is NOT a smart idea.

For businesses, thefts during business hours are typically treated as shoplifting rather than burglary, since it is often very difficult to prove that the person intended to steal when he or she entered the business, rather than made a spur-of-the-moment decision to take a particular item.

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Robbery
"211. Robbery is the felonious taking of personal property in the possession of another, from his person or immediate presence, and against his will, accomplished by means of force or fear."

Examples of robbery include purse snatching and stick-ups, as well as hold-ups of convenience stores or other businesses.  The critical element in this crime is force or fear.  If someone picks your pocket and steals your wallet, and you don't notice, then it is not a robbery but rather what is called "grand theft person," as they did not forcibly take the wallet from you, nor were you in fear at any time (since you weren't even aware of the incident).

The fear element is very specific.  "212. The fear mentioned in Section 211 may be either: 1. The fear of an unlawful injury to the person or property of the person robbed, or of any relative of his or member of his family; or, 2. The fear of an immediate and unlawful injury to the person or property of anyone in the company of the person robbed at the time of the robbery."  Fear of other events, such as the threat of exposure of sensitive information or the threat of another crime that won't damage your property ("Give me your money or I'll break that sign over there!"), don't qualify as robbery; instead these crimes are generally classified as extortion, also known as blackmail.

A specialized form of robbery, carjacking, involves the theft of a vehicle by force or fear:

"215. (a) 'Carjacking' is the felonious taking of a motor vehicle in the possession of another, from his or her person or immediate presence, or from the person or immediate presence of a passenger of the motor vehicle, against his or her will and with the intent to either permanently or temporarily deprive the person in possession of the motor vehicle of his or her possession, accomplished by means of force or fear."

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Grand Theft & Petty Theft
"487. Grand theft is theft committed in any of the following cases: 
    (a) When the money, labor, or real or personal property taken is of a value exceeding nine hundred fifty dollars ($950), except as provided in subdivision (b). 
    (b) Notwithstanding subdivision (a), grand theft is committed in any of the following cases: 
        (1) (A) When domestic fowls, avocados, olives, citrus or deciduous fruits, other fruits, vegetables, nuts, artichokes, or other farm crops are taken of a value exceeding two hundred fifty dollars ($250). 
        (B) For the purposes of establishing that the value of domestic fowls, avocados, olives, citrus or deciduous fruits, other fruits, vegetables, nuts, artichokes, or other farm crops under this paragraph exceeds two hundred fifty dollars ($250), that value may be shown by the presentation of credible evidence which establishes that on the day of the theft domestic fowls, avocados, olives, citrus or deciduous fruits, other fruits, vegetables, nuts, artichokes, or other farm crops of the same variety and weight exceeded two hundred fifty dollars ($250) in wholesale value. 
        (2) When fish, shellfish, mollusks, crustaceans, kelp, algae, or other aquacultural products are taken from a commercial or research operation which is producing that product, of a value exceeding two hundred fifty dollars ($250). 
        (3) Where the money, labor, or real or personal property is taken by a servant, agent, or employee from his or her principal or employer and aggregates nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) or more in any 12 consecutive month period. 
    (c) When the property is taken from the person of another.  [Grand Theft Person]
    (d) When the property taken is any of the following: 
        (1) An automobile, horse, mare, gelding, any bovine animal, any caprine animal, mule, jack, jenny, sheep, lamb, hog, sow, boar, gilt, barrow, or pig.  [Grand Theft Auto]
        (2) A firearm.

"488. Theft in other cases is petty theft."

There are also several other sections between 487 and 488 that further subdefine and classify various types of grand theft and petty theft, such as real estate theft, theft of dogs, and defrauding a housing authority.  In addition, other types of theft, such as theft of lost property or theft by access card, have their own special sections of the Penal Code.

For most types of theft, the "cut-off" value is $950 - greater than that qualifies as grand theft, whereas anything $950 or under will be classified as petty theft.  However, the rule of thumb to remember here is the total value of the items taken.  In most cases, this will be limited to the value of items taken in a single incident, whereas in some cases (such as embezzlement by an employee) it may be cumulative over a period of time.  Two XBox 360 consoles, a PlayStation 3 console, and a handful of games might each be worth less than the $950 that is generally necessary to qualify as grand theft, but if stolen together their combined value will most likely exceed that amount and therefore qualify.

Grand theft auto is the typical type of auto theft seen; however carjacking (see above under Robbery) is a specialized form that does occasionally occur.  Note that for grand theft auto, unlike vehicle burglary, the vehicle does not need to be locked.  Also, when a vehicle is taken without the intent to steal it (for example, unauthorized borrowing of a vehicle or preventing access to it by its true owner), Vehicle Code section 10851 is used instead of 487(d)(1):

"10851. (a) Any person who drives or takes a vehicle not his or her own, without the consent of the owner thereof, and with intent either to permanently or temporarily deprive the owner thereof of his or her title to or possession of the vehicle, whether with or without intent to steal the vehicle, or any person who is a party or an accessory to or an accomplice in the driving or unauthorized taking or stealing, is guilty of a public offense."

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Theft by Access Card
"484g. Every person who, with the intent to defraud, (a) uses, for the purpose of obtaining money, goods, services, or anything else of value, an access card or access card account information that has been altered, obtained, or retained in violation of Section 484e or 484f, or an access card which he or she knows is forged, expired, or revoked, or (b) obtains money, goods, services, or anything else of value by representing without the consent of the cardholder that he or she is the holder of an access card and the card has not in fact been issued, is guilty of theft. If the value of all money, goods, services, and other things of value obtained in violation of this section exceeds four hundred dollars ($400) in any consecutive six-month period, then the same shall constitute grand theft."

While most people think of someone getting ahold of their debit card information and using it as identity theft, this is not actually the case.  These types of thefts are called theft by access card, i.e. theft of money, goods, or services by using a card or card information that doesn't belong to the person, is known by the person to be expired, forged, or cancelled, or that hasn't been issued yet but when issued will belong to another person.  Credit cards (including store cards), debit or ATM cards, and EBT cards ("welfare cards" for cash aid or food stamps) are the three most common types of cards involved - in fact anything else is so rare as to not even be worth mentioning.

Note that the actual card is not needed to commit this crime.  If a person obtains the 16-digit number from the face of your credit card, that's all they need.  You might never even realize that you've been victimized until you get your statement, since your card is still in your wallet or purse.

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Identity Theft
"530.5. (a) Every person who willfully obtains personal identifying information, as defined in subdivision (b) of Section 530.55, of another person, and uses that information for any unlawful purpose, including to obtain, or attempt to obtain, credit, goods, services, real property, or medical information without the consent of that person, is guilty of a public offense....
"...(d) (1) Every person who, with the intent to defraud, sells, transfers, or conveys the personal identifying information, as defined in subdivision (b) of Section 530.55, of another person is guilty of a public offense."

"530.55. (a) For purposes of this chapter, 'person' means a natural person, living or deceased, firm, association, organization, partnership, business trust, company, corporation, limited liability company, or public entity, or any other legal entity. (b) For purposes of this chapter, 'personal identifying information' means any name, address, telephone number, health insurance number, taxpayer identification number, school identification number, state or federal driver's license, or identification number, social security number, place of employment, employee identification number, professional or occupational number, mother's maiden name, demand deposit account number, savings account number, checking account number, PIN (personal identification number) or password, alien registration number, government passport number, date of birth, unique biometric data including fingerprint, facial scan identifiers, voiceprint, retina or iris image, or other unique physical representation, unique electronic data including information identification number assigned to the person, address or routing code, telecommunication identifying information or access device, information contained in a birth or death certificate, or credit card number of an individual person, or an equivalent form of identification."

Identity theft is most commonly encountered with fraudulent or unauthorized use of a social security number.  Employment, medical services, and credit can be obtained with just those nine little digits.  In addition birthdates, full names, addresses, and phone numbers are also frequently used.

This is an insidious crime which is often difficult to detect until well after the fact.  Often a victim won't find out about it until several months or even years down the road, when they receive a notice from a collection agency about an account they never opened, or a letter from the IRS saying that they owe back taxes on unreported wages from jobs they never worked.  The delay in detection in turn makes it difficult to track and prosecute those responsible.

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False Personation
"529. Every person who falsely personates another in either his private or official capacity, and in such assumed character either:
1. Becomes bail or surety for any party in any proceeding whatever, before any court or officer authorized to take such bail or surety;
2. Verifies, publishes, acknowledges, or proves, in the name of another person, any written instrument, with intent that the same may be recorded, delivered, or used as true; or,
3. Does any other act whereby, if done by the person falsely personated, he might, in any event, become liable to any suit or prosecution, or to pay any sum of money, or to incur any charge, forfeiture, or penalty, or whereby any benefit might accrue to the party personating, or to any other person; Is punishable by a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by imprisonment in the state prison, or in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by both such fine and imprisonment."

This type of identity theft is the actual assumption of another person's identity, not just the use of that other person's information.  It is most frequently encountered in legal affairs, such as when being issued a traffic citation.  The perpetrator (often times a relative or acquaintance of the victim, with somewhat similar appearance) will pass themself off as the victim and ignore the ticket, with the legal fallout falling down on the victim for failure to appear in court or pay the fine.

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Forgery
"470. (a) Every person who, with the intent to defraud, knowing that he or she has no authority to do so, signs the name of another person or of a fictitious person to any of the items listed in subdivision (d) is guilty of forgery.
(b) Every person who, with the intent to defraud, counterfeits or forges the seal or handwriting of another is guilty of forgery.
(c) Every person who, with the intent to defraud, alters, corrupts, or falsifies any record of any will, codicil, conveyance, or other instrument, the record of which is by law evidence, or any record of any judgment of a court or the return of any officer to any process of any court, is guilty of forgery.
(d) Every person who, with the intent to defraud, falsely makes, alters, forges, or counterfeits, utters, publishes, passes or attempts or offers to pass, as true and genuine, any of the following items, knowing the same to be false, altered, forged, or counterfeited, is guilty of forgery: any check, bond, bank bill, or note, cashier's check, traveler's check, money order, post note, draft, any controller's warrant for the payment of money at the treasury, county order or warrant, or request for the payment of money, receipt for money or goods, bill of exchange, promissory note, order, or any assignment of any bond, writing obligatory, or other contract for money or other property, contract, due bill for payment of money or property, receipt for money or property, passage ticket, lottery ticket or share purporting to be issued under the California State Lottery Act of 1984, trading stamp, power of attorney, certificate of ownership or other document evidencing ownership of a vehicle or undocumented vessel, or any certificate of any share, right, or interest in the stock of any corporation or association, or the delivery of goods or chattels of any kind, or for the delivery of any instrument of writing, or acquittance, release or discharge of any debt, account, suit, action, demand, or any other thing, real or personal, or any transfer or assurance of money, certificate of shares of stock, goods, chattels, or other property whatever, or any letter of attorney, or other power to receive money, or to receive or transfer certificates of shares of stock or annuities, or to let, lease, dispose of, alien, or convey any goods, chattels, lands, or tenements, or other estate, real or personal, or falsifies the acknowledgment of any notary public, or any notary public who issues an acknowledgment knowing it to be false; or any matter described in subdivision (b)."

Simply put: altering or falsifying a document, creating a fake document and passing it as real, or signing someone else's name or using their seal is forgery.  However, as you can see from each of the subsections above, intent to defraud is necessary.  In most cases, simply creating a fake diploma isn't forgery (unless you intend to use it to claim credentials that you don't have).  There are certain exceptions, such as creating false government identification cards (ex., driver's licenses or Social Security cards), and these exceptions are dealt with in other sections of the Penal Code.

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Vandalism
"594. (a) Every person who maliciously commits any of the following acts with respect to any real or personal property not his or her own, in cases other than those specified by state law, is guilty of vandalism:
(1) Defaces with graffiti or other inscribed material.
(2) Damages.
(3) Destroys."

There are two key elements of this crime.  The most important is malicious intent - accidentally overspraying when painting your house and getting your neighbor's fence, or accidentally breaking a window with an errant baseball, is not vandalism, but deliberately painting your neighbor's fence or throwing the baseball directly at the window and breaking it is.

The second key element is property not his or her own.  If you and your spouse get into a fight, and one of you decides to smash the other's car windows with a baseball bat, there is no vandalism since under California law property belonging to one spouse also belongs to the other (except in limited cicrumstances).

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Criminal Threats (a.k.a. "Terrorist Threats")
"422. Any person who willfully threatens to commit a crime which will result in death or great bodily injury to another person, with the specific intent that the statement, made verbally, in writing, or by means of an electronic communication device, is to be taken as a threat, even if there is no intent of actually carrying it out, which, on its face and under the circumstances in which it is made, is so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to convey to the person threatened, a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution of the threat, and thereby causes that person reasonably to be in sustained fear for his or her own safety or for his or her immediate family's safety, shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed one year, or by imprisonment in the state prison."

Essentially, to qualify as a criminal threat, the threat must be specific and cause you to fear great bodily injury or death to yourself or your immediate family.  Simply being told "I'm gonna take care of you" is not a criminal threat since it is unspecific (perhaps they will care for you financially, or provide medical care?); likewise "Watch out or I'll slash your tires" is not a criminal threat as it threatens harm to your vehicle, not yourself or your family.  A good rule of thumb to use is to compare the threat to this one, and see if it rises to the same level: "I'm going to slash your throat while you sleep tonight."

Intent is critical to this crime, but it can be tricky.  The threat-maker does not need to intend to carry out the threat, but does need to intend to put you in fear that they will.

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Rape
"261. (a) Rape is an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a person not the spouse of the perpetrator, under any of the following circumstances: 
    (1) Where a person is incapable, because of a mental disorder or developmental or physical disability, of giving legal consent, and this is known or reasonably should be known to the person committing the act. [...]
    (2) Where it is accomplished against a person's will by means of force, violence, duress, menace, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury on the person or another. 
    (3) Where a person is prevented from resisting by any intoxicating or anesthetic substance, or any controlled substance, and this condition was known, or reasonably should have been known by the accused. 
    (4) Where a person is at the time unconscious of the nature of the act, and this is known to the accused. As used in this paragraph, 'unconscious of the nature of the act' means incapable of resisting because the victim meets one of the following conditions: 
        (A) Was unconscious or asleep. 
        (B) Was not aware, knowing, perceiving, or cognizant that the act occurred. 
        (C) Was not aware, knowing, perceiving, or cognizant of the essential characteristics of the act due to the perpetrator's fraud in fact. 
        (D) Was not aware, knowing, perceiving, or cognizant of the essential characteristics of the act due to the perpetrator's fraudulent representation that the sexual penetration served a professional purpose when it served no professional purpose.
    (5) Where a person submits under the belief that the person committing the act is the victim's spouse, and this belief is induced by any artifice, pretense, or concealment practiced by the accused, with intent to induce the belief. 
    (6) Where the act is accomplished against the victim's will by threatening to retaliate in the future against the victim or any other person, and there is a reasonable possibility that the perpetrator will execute the threat. As used in this paragraph, 'threatening to retaliate' means a threat to kidnap or falsely imprison, or to inflict extreme pain, serious bodily injury, or death. 
    (7) Where the act is accomplished against the victim's will by threatening to use the authority of a public official to incarcerate, arrest, or deport the victim or another, and the victim has a reasonable belief that the perpetrator is a public official. As used in this paragraph, 'public official' means a person employed by a governmental agency who has the authority, as part of that position, to incarcerate, arrest, or deport another. The perpetrator does not actually have to be a public official.
(b) As used in this section, 'duress' means a direct or implied threat of force, violence, danger, or retribution sufficient to coerce a reasonable person of ordinary susceptibilities to perform an act which otherwise would not have been performed, or acquiesce in an act to which one otherwise would not have submitted. The total circumstances, including the age of the victim, and his or her relationship to the defendant, are factors to consider in appraising the existence of duress.
(c) As used in this section, 'menace' means any threat, declaration, or act which shows an intention to inflict an injury upon another."

Rape is a serious crime, and as you can see is not taken lightly by the Penal Code.  While this specific section is for rape of a victim who is not married to the perpetrator, section 262 does provide for spousal rape.

The critical element of rape is consent.  If the victim does not consent, is legally incapable of giving consent (for example minors under the age of 18, covered under section 261.5 ["statutory rape"]), or is unconscious of the act to give consent, then it is rape.

Remember, rape involves sexual intercourse; however there are several other sections of the Penal Code that deal with other assaults and abuse of sexual nature (see below).  Also, rape with a foreign or unknown object is covered under section 289.

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Sexual Assault
"243.4. (a) Any person who touches an intimate part of another person while that person is unlawfully restrained by the accused or an accomplice, and if the touching is against the will of the person touched and is for the purpose of sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse, is guilty of sexual battery.
(b) Any person who touches an intimate part of another person who is institutionalized for medical treatment and who is seriously disabled or medically incapacitated, if the touching is against the will of the person touched, and if the touching is for the purpose of sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse, is guilty of sexual battery.
(c) Any person who touches an intimate part of another person for the purpose of sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse, and the victim is at the time unconscious of the nature of the act because the perpetrator fraudulently represented that the touching served a professional purpose, is guilty of sexual battery.
(d) Any person who, for the purpose of sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse, causes another, against that person's will while that person is unlawfully restrained either by the accused or an accomplice, or is institutionalized for medical treatment and is seriously disabled or medically incapacitated, to masturbate or touch an intimate part of either of those persons or a third person, is guilty of sexual battery.
(e) (1) Any person who touches an intimate part of another person, if the touching is against the will of the person touched, and is for the specific purpose of sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse, is guilty of misdemeanor sexual battery...
    (2) As used in this subdivision, 'touches' means physical contact with another person, whether accomplished directly, through the clothing of the person committing the offense, or through the clothing of the victim.
(f) As used in subdivisions (a), (b), (c), and (d), 'touches' means physical contact with the skin of another person whether accomplished directly or through the clothing of the person committing the offense.
(g) As used in this section, the following terms have the following meanings: 
    (1) 'Intimate part' means the sexual organ, anus, groin, or buttocks of any person, and the breast of a female. 
    (2) 'Sexual battery' does not include the crimes defined in Section 261 or 289."

Groping, flashing, and other similar unwanted acts fall under this category.  Almost anything sexual can be classified as sexual battery, with the notable exception of rape.  Remember, just as with rape the key element here is consent.  If the sexual act happens against your will, it is sexual battery.

There are other sections of the penal code that deal with specific types of sexual battery, including sodomy, oral copulation, and sexual abuse of animals.

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Kidnapping
"207. (a) Every person who forcibly, or by any other means of instilling fear, steals or takes, or holds, detains, or arrests any person in this state, and carries the person into another country, state, or county, or into another part of the same county, is guilty of kidnapping."

Kidnapping is sometimes called "theft of people," and aptly so.  It involves the stealing of a person away from their family, their friends, and their life.  It can be across international lines or across the street - distance is irrelevant.  The intended actions to occur after the kidnapping are likewise irrelevant, whether they be to sell the victim into slavery, to abuse or murder the victim, or even release them and let them go back home.

Note that a provision is made above for a person who "arrests any person in this state" - however this provision does not apply for lawful arrests made by a peace officer or private citizen pursuant to Penal Code sections 834 or 837.

The key element of this crime is force or fear.  If the person goes willingly, there is no crime.  Also note: there is no special provision for victims who are minors, with the exception of subsection (b) which provides for kidnapping of a child under the age of 14 years for sexual purposes.  Therefore, if your 16-year old son or daughter decides on their own to go with a total stranger to another state, there is no kidnapping involved.  However, there may be other sections of the Penal Code of which the stranger in this instance may be guilty.

For cases in which a child is taken by one parent in an attempt to deny custody or visitation to which the other parent is legally entitled, Penal Code sections 278 and 278.5 apply instead of section 207 (this is known as "child concealment" or "child stealing").

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