Often times people think that a person can only be guilty of shoplifting when leaving a store with something without paying for it, but that is not actually the case.
Legally, the offense of shoplifting is committed the moment a person picks up an item in a store with the intent to steal it. The most common question that people ask is, “How can they prove a person had the intent to steal it?”
Often times, this comes down to circumstantial evidence, such as where a person puts the item when they pick it up (shopping cart versus inside coat pocket). Ultimately, it would be up to a judge or jury to determine whether they believe the person had the intent to steal, before the person could be found guilty.
However, the last thing a person wants to deal with is being arrested for shoplifting and having to fight this issue in court. The best way to avoid this situation is simply to make sure that nothing you do when you pick up an item in a store could be considered to show an intent to steal it.
Another common way people are found guilty of shoplifting is by either altering, changing or swapping out price tags, or putting things in the container of another item, or in some other way causing an item to register at a lower price at the checkout. Again, this is another area where the offense is committed at the moment a person does any of those things, not just when going to the register or leaving the store with the items.
The best way to stay safe in these areas is to avoid doing anything that could be considered manipulating or otherwise changing the price tags of items. Never attach a price tag that appears to belong to an item to that item. Always tell the clerk if a price tag or particular packaging appears to go with something it was not attached to or inside of.
With a clear understanding of what shoplifting is, people often ask “What can happen to a person convicted of shoplifting?” There are two factors that determine what could happen upon a conviction for shoplifting. The first is the value of the item or items, and the second is the number of prior shoplifting convictions the person has.
When the value of the items taken exceed $500, then the offense is a felony. The punishment for the felony offense is a one- to 10-year sentence, which could be any combination of time spent in prison or on probation. The total of $500 can be calculated in one of three ways. It is either: (1) the total value of the items from a single theft from a single store; (2) the total value of items stolen from three separate stores in the same county during a period of seven days or less; or (3) the total value of the items stolen over a period of 180 days. This means that even numerous smaller thefts over a period of 180 days could result in a felony charge.
If the value of the items is $500 or less, then the offense is a misdemeanor, which means the maximum penalty is 12 months, which can be any combination of incarceration or probation, and a $1,000 fine plus surcharges.
When an individual is convicted of a second shoplifting offense, the penalties are still determined as above, but the minimum fine becomes $500.
When an individual is convicted of a third offense for shoplifting, there is a required minimum amount of incarceration. That incarceration shall either be 30 days confinement, or 120 days in a Department of Corrections facility, such as a boot camp or detention center. On a third conviction, the person can be required to undergo a psychological evaluation and treatment.
On a fourth or subsequent conviction, the value of the items stolen no longer matters. The offense is treated as a felony and the person can be sentenced from one to 10 years, but the first year can not be suspended, probated or otherwise deferred, which generally means it must be spent in prison.
In addition to the potential incarceration, probation and fines, a judge can order shoplifting or other classes as well as community service work.
Outside of the criminal consequences, a store where you shoplifted can sue you for civil damages and prohibit you from returning to any of their store locations. Additionally, a shoplifting conviction can make finding employment difficult. Given the potential consequences facing someone charged with shoplifting, seeking the advice of a skilled attorney should always be the first step after a charge.
– Paul Ghanouni is a local attorney and former associate magistrate judge. He is the Managing Attorney at the Ghanouni Teen & Young Adult Defense Firm, which focuses on helping young people who get in trouble with the law. They believe that a young person’s future is worth protecting.