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The topics in the Dial-A-Law series provide general information on a wide variety of legal issues in the Province of Alberta. This service is provided by Calgary Legal Guidance funded in part by the Alberta Law Foundation.
This topic discusses some circumstances where you can be charged with theft.
Theft occurs when a person intentionally and without consent, deprives an owner of their rightful goods. The goods in question do not have to be of value, but they must have an owner. If you take goods which have been abandoned or have no owner, there is no crime of theft as a deprivation has not occurred. It is unlikely however, that goods with a value are abandoned or are ownerless. For example, if you remove empty beer bottles from someone’s back porch without their consent, you can be charged with theft.
The most common type of theft is shoplifting. Shoplifting occurs when you take goods out of a store without paying for them. Not returning borrowed goods is also considered theft. For example, if your employer asks you to give away balloons to customers, and you keep the left over balloons then you commit the crime of theft. Borrowing a friend’s car and later refusing to return it back will also result in a charge of theft.
In circumstances where you borrow goods and change their condition, you commit the crime of theft (by conversion). For example, if your bank makes an error and deposits $500 into your account, and you take the money out knowing that it is not yours, you can be charged with theft by conversion. If you did not know the bank made the error and they advise you later of the errors, you will be charged with theft if you refuse to pay back the bank. Also, if you intend to steal something and start to do so but cannot complete the act, you can be charged with theft. Thus, if you are stopped leaving a store by security persons who believe you shoplifted, you can be charged with theft or attempted theft. Finally a theft charge will be laid regardless of whether you make an effort to conceal the stolen goods or not. For example, a person who jumps into the car of another with the owner standing nearby will still be charged with theft.
In order to be convicted of theft the Crown Prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt all essential elements of the offence. It must be reasonably demonstrated that you not only stole or converted the goods, but that you also intended to defraud or deprive the owner of their items. There may be a defense if you believed that the goods honestly belonged to you (known as the defense of color of right). You should obtain legal advice as soon as possible after you are charged.
The penalties for a theft conviction set out in the Criminal Code of Canada are serious. If you have stolen goods that are valued under $5,000 the Crown Prosecutor may elect to charge you with a summary offence or the more serious, indictable offence. If charged summarily, you may be given a fine up to $2,000 or 6 months in prison or a combination of the two. If convicted of the indictable form of the offence you could be faced with a maximum of 10 years in prison. Those who are first (and in some instances, second time) offenders and have stolen goods with a value not exceeding $5,000 may qualify for the diversion program. A pre-trial inquiry will be held where it will be decided whether you qualify for the program. Successful candidates will then have to enter into an agreement where they will likely engage in community service, participate in a specific program or provide a donation to a charity. However, if the value of the goods stolen exceeds $5,000 then you will be prosecuted with an indictable offence and therefore face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.