Shoplifting is not limited to the act of taking something from a store without paying for it. If you change the price tag on an item to avoid paying full cost or eat food in a grocery store without paying for it, you are shoplifting. It can be easy to assume these accusations are no big deal since this is one of the most common crimes out there, particularly among juvenile offenders, but that’s a dangerous assumption for those facing charges. Always hire an experienced defense attorney if you have been accused of shoplifting.
Is Shoplifting Legal in California?
Contrary to what some websites and social media pages will tell you, shoplifting is absolutely against the law. Many people share this misinformation because it is now a misdemeanor offense, whereas these acts were previously charged as felony burglary offenses. But if you believe that a misdemeanor isn’t a crime, then by that logic, drunk driving, assault, and indecent exposure are all legal too. The reality is that misdemeanors are criminal offenses that can leave you behind bars.
The change that led to people proclaiming that shoplifting is now legal occurred in 2014, when the state passed a specific law, Penal Code 459.5 (PC), which defined retail theft and protected those who took less than $950 worth of merchandise from facing burglary charges. Before a specific shoplifting law was created, this crime was handled as any other form of theft, meaning those who took more than $950 worth of merchandise would face grand theft charges while those who took less than that would face petty theft charges.
In many cases, shoplifters would also be accused of burglary, a felony, if prosecutors and police believed the defendant entered the store intending to steal. Under the new law, burglary charges cannot be filed along with shoplifting.
What is Shoplifting?
Shoplifting involves entering a business during regular hours and taking, or intending to take, goods valued at less than $950. If the suspect enters the store outside of normal hours, then standard theft, trespassing, and burglary charges may apply. If more than $950 worth of merchandise is taken, the suspect will still face grand theft charges.
Whereas the previous law required someone to actually take goods from the store, security guards can now stop shoplifters before they exit the store if they see someone attempting to steal. However, the prosecution must be able to prove that the person intended to steal. While they may be able to secure a conviction against someone shoving a video game down their waistband when they think no one is looking, it would be much harder to make a successful case against someone who is stopped before they reach the register because they put a toy for a child shopping with them in their bag.
Intent also matters in these cases, so if someone left a store with an item under their cart that they accidentally forgot to pay for, they did not violate the law.
What Happens if You Get Caught Shoplifting in California?
What happens to someone caught shoplifting will vary depending on:
- the store
- the value
- their criminal record
Do All Stores Arrest Shoplifters?
While some companies have policies prohibiting employees from stopping shoplifters, others encourage them to stop thieves. Once a suspected shoplifter is detained, some shops will simply photograph the individual and tell them they are banned from the store and will be charged with trespassing. Other businesses will call the police and attempt to have someone arrested for any amount of theft.
How Does Value Affect Shoplifting Charges?
If the police are called after someone is caught stealing from a store, the value of the products will determine which charges are filed. In retail theft cases, determining value is typically very basic. For items under $50, the DA will often choose to file the crime as an infraction, meaning the defendant will only need to pay a fine, and the offense will not end up on their criminal record. When the value of the items is under $950, shoplifting charges will usually apply. If the value is over $950, then the DA will usually file grand theft charges unless the stolen goods were very valuable, in which case, the charge can be filed as a felony.
Is Shoplifting a Misdemeanor or Felony?
One quirk of 459.5 (PC) is that while this offense is ordinarily a misdemeanor, the DA may choose to file the charges as a felony if someone has a prior conviction for a sex crime requiring registration on the state’s sex offender list or a serious or violent felony. Crimes that can qualify someone for felony shoplifting charges include:
What is the Penalty for Shoplifting in California?
Shoplifting charges are almost always a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than six months in jail and $1,000 in fines. If the defendant has previously been convicted for certain violent, serious, or sex crimes, the District Attorney can file the charges as a felony. When charged as a felony, shoplifting is punishable by up to $10,000 in fines and up to 3 years in jail.
In cases where the stolen goods are valued at over $950, defendants usually face misdemeanor grand theft charges, punishable by up to one year in jail. If the stolen items were particularly valuable, felony grand theft charges may be filed, meaning the defendant could face a sentence of up to 3 years.
What are Some Defenses to Shoplifting?
In many cases, defendants are best off not fighting these charges but instead participating in a diversion program that will allow them to avoid pleading guilty, serving time in jail, and having a criminal charge added to their record. These programs require the defendant to take a shoplifting class, and then get charges dismissed.
Similarly, when suspects face felony charges, the best approach is sometimes to take a plea deal that will result in the charges being reduced to a misdemeanor so they can complete a diversion program and avoid jail and a mark on their criminal record.
When it may be advantageous to fight the charges, one of the strongest defenses is to deny that you had the intent to commit larceny. For example, if you left a grocery store without paying for something in your shopping cart, the prosecution must be able to show that you intended to steal the item and that it was not a simple oversight on your part. Similarly, while you can be convicted for intending to steal an item, if you placed something in the top of your purse and were arrested before you left the store, you may be able to argue that you intended to pay for the item and were simply not given the chance.
Organized Theft Rings
Unfortunately, after this law was enacted, some criminal organizations began organizing to commit larceny from retail establishments with the knowledge that anyone caught could go through a diversion program. To help end these organized theft rings, California passed a new theft crimes law, 490.4 (PC). This law allows for harsher penalties for anyone who works with one or more persons to steal or receive stolen merchandise.
Like standard shoplifting charges, whether or not these crimes will be a misdemeanor or felony is based on the amount of stolen property; however, the value of the goods is aggregated across all incidences of theft —not just an isolated act. Because prosecutors base the charges on the aggregate value of stolen goods, these charges are often charged as felonies, punishable by three years in prison. When the offense is charged as a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty is one year in county jail, which is still twice the sentence for standard shoplifting.
Those caught stealing or attempting to steal merchandise from a commercial establishment may face other charges than shoplifting. Those who physically resist someone who tries to arrest them can be charged with robbery, a felony.
Because you can only be charged with shoplifting if you enter a business during its regular business hours, if you enter the store after it is closed with the intent to commit a theft crime or any felony, you may face burglary charges.
If you have been charged with multiple charges, a shoplifting defense attorney may be able to have some charges dropped or reduced.
Whatever the specifics of your case, do not speak with the police without your shoplifting defense lawyer present. You can schedule a free initial consultation with Peter M. Liss by calling (760) 643-4050.