The Texas Penal Code has a “value ladder” for theft. Get yourself accused of stealing:

  • Less than $50   = Class C Misdemeanor – max $500 fine
  • $50 < $500         = Class B Misdemeanor – max 6 months in jail
  • $500 < $1500    = Class A Misdemeanor – max 1 year in jail (but see)

Et cetera, et cetera. Theft of $1500 up to $20,000 is a State Jail Felony and it just keeps on going up and up from there. This makes some sense. After all, stealing a nickel from me somehow seems less egregious than ripping me off for a whole lot of money.

But the Texas Legislature meets every two years, and there’s nothing better for your re-election campaign eighteen months after the session ends than going back home and telling your constituents that you got “Tough on Crime”. So let’s tweak those criminal laws, shall we?

What if someone steals a [Gasp! Fill-in-the-Blank… but it’s not really valued as much as it should be!] and only gets punished as if they stole something with an equivalent monetary value? Why they’d be getting away with something, and goodness knows you Don’t Mess With Texas.

So throughout the years, several extra important things have been super-criminalized in Texas. The prosecutor won’t need to prove the value of the property stolen: if you stole it, extra punishment will come.

So what are these enhanced penalties, these extra special exceptions? I’m not sure I can list them all, but here are a few of the usual suspects, along with some doosies

  • Hot Check (and, yes, it’s still called Theft on your criminal history) of $20 – $500 is a Class B. Physically stealing an item worth $49 is still a Class C, but write a bad check for half that amount? Insta-jailable offense. Ok, so writing hot checks is worse, apparently. Never mind that a lot of the time it’s unintentional which thankfully, if provable, is still a defense. You may get arrested, but the criminal case should be dropped.
  • Theft less than $50, but… your prior theft conviction bumps this Class C to a Class B. Ok, two time loser. Got it.
  • Steal less than 10 head of cattle, horses, or exotic livestock or exotic fowl? We don’t care about the value – automatic felony, state jail offense. 

The irony here is that this was probably written originally when 9 head of cattle was worth less than $1500- which would have been a third degree felony at the time – but we don’t take kindly to cattle rustling, so there you go.

I’m no rancher, but I’m pretty sure this vestige of the… what?… nineteenth-ish century is not really necessary anymore. Can you buy a cow for less than $167? I doubt it. So any theft of 9 cows or so is going to be waaaay past that $1500 mark. (Oddly, if it’s past the twenty thousand mark, you’ll now be able to argue that the more specific provision in the statute controls over the general, and therefore you shouldn’t be prosecuted for the higher level third degree felony. Again, no expertise on cattle prices here, but that doesn’t sound too likely.)

Also a state jail offense no matter the actual value?

  • Less than 100 head of sheep, swine, or goats…

What kind of lengthy and scholarly debate must have been heard on the floor of the capitol as representatives and senators argued about how many goats were equivalent to one steer? Again, I think is this is one of those “old” provisions that’s been carried through the decades, so none of us will ever get to hear recordings of our elected officials as they struggled to come up with that just right 11 to 1 swine to cattle ratio. (For the math challenged that think perhaps they just randomly, arbitrarily, perhaps capriciously settled on a factor of ten without putting an ounce of thought into it, I’d point out that if 99 sheep are worth 9 head of cattle that’s 11/1. Proof positive that deep thinking was involved.)

But what value does any of this have for modern legislation? Grits for Breakfast points us to the latest proposed addition to our ever lengthening theft statute: Theft of a Pet. One and only one pet. “The term includes a dog, cat, rodent, fish, reptile, or bird.”

Senator Genius wants to make this a felony. As Grits points out:

Is this a big problem? Has there been a rash of pet-nappings and I wasn’t informed?

I can think of two incidents in my adult personal life involving allegations of "stolen pets." Both were essentially pet custody disputes, which makes me think such a law could be easily mis-applied.

Pinning a felony tag on somebody – even the lowest level felony – places a scarlet letter on the offender’s back potentially for life. We ought to be more cautious about making putting more and more petty crimes in that category.

We ought to be. Criminalizing – felonizing, is that a word? – pet custody disputes. No potential for abuse there. After all, breakups wouldn’t lead to false accusations, would they?