What is Shoplifting Law?
Shoplifting law deals with theft crimes that occur in retail establishments. Perpetrators are shoppers who enter the establishment with permission. They will either conceal merchandise and leave the store without paying, or fraudulently manipulate an item's packaging in order to pay less than the true price. Merely concealing property with the intent to deprive the owner is sufficient to constitute the crime of shoplifting in most jurisdictions, even if the perpetrator does not succeed in removing the property from the premises.
Laws prohibiting shoplifting are found in state and municipal penal codes. Penalties include jail time, fines, court fees, and any number of probationary terms such as restitution and community service. The particular sentence handed down in a given case will depend primarily on the dollar value of the property taken. Sentences may be more severe in light of aggravating factors like previous theft convictions or a lack of remorse by the defendant. At the discretion of the prosecutor, shoplifting cases involving substantial loss to the victim may be charged as more serious crimes, such as felony larceny.
Merchant's Authority to Detain
It is extremely rare for law enforcement to be present and personally detect the crime of shoplifting as it is happening. Most of the time, the police are called to the scene by store employees who apprehended the suspect after witnessing the theft. While merchants have a legitimate concern in protecting against shoplifting losses, encounters between employees and suspects give rise to important concerns. Specifically, there is a danger that employees will act without sufficient justification, or that they will infringe upon the suspect's rights by the way the detention is carried out.
Rules are in place in every jurisdiction with respect to a merchant's authority to question and hold a shoplifting suspect until the police arrive. These rules may be founded on language in the applicable shoplifting statute, or they may be an extension of constitutional principles. In general, security guards or other employees must have "probable cause" to believe a crime has been committed before stopping a suspect. Probable cause can be established through the observations of employees or customers, statements made by the suspect in response to questioning, surveillance video recordings, or a combination of these and other factors.
Store employees must also carry out the questioning and detention of suspects in a reasonable manner. Like other areas of the law, application of this rule depends upon the factual circumstances. For example, an employee who sees a customer conceal an item of merchandise and walk toward the exit will likely act within the law by stepping in front of the customer to prevent escape. On the other hand, with nothing more than secondhand information from a bystander, an employee would likely violate the law by grabbing a hold of a customer and engaging in a physical struggle to prevent the customer from leaving.
Defending a Shoplifting Case
If criminal charges are filed, individuals should take steps to protect their rights and force the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. While only an attorney can perform a complete review of the case and find all of the weaknesses in the prosecution's case, defendants should always consider the issue of intent. Shoplifting requires that the defendant took merchandise intending to steal it. Because innocent actions can be misconstrued, the element of intent often presents a hurdle for prosecutors in these cases. Of course, any successful defense must be in harmony with all the rest of the evidence in the case.
Avoiding the Consequences of a Conviction
Even in the presence of strong evidence against the defendant, the long-term ramifications of a shoplifting conviction may warrant taking a case to trial rather than pleading guilty. In fact, it is quite common for merchants to fail to show up to trial to testify against the defendant due to the expense of taking time away from other obligations in order to participate in the proceedings. Many otherwise solid cases have been dismissed simply because the prosecution's witnesses were unavailable on the day of the trial.
Plea bargaining is another option available to defendants. The idea is for the defendant to agree to accept a certain amount of responsibility in exchange for the prosecutor amending the charges to something less damaging to the defendant's reputation and future employment prospects. Some courts also offer a deferral option to first-time offenders. A deferral allows the court to erase all records of the shoplifting arrest once the defendant has satisfied conditions such as the payment of restitution and the completion of probation.
Consulting a Defense Lawyer
If you have been arrested for shoplifting, you may feel confused, embarrassed, or even angry. As bad as your situation may appear, going forward without an attorney will almost certainly make things worse. To learn about the options for resolving your case, contact a criminal defense lawyer now.