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Shoplifting is a crime that involves willful concealment of retail merchandise with the intent to permanently deprive the store owner of pay for the item or items. Shoplifting is a larceny crime against a retail establishment. Expensive small items are attractive to shoplifters. Everyday items targeted for shoplifting include; baby items, clothing articles, jewelry, alcoholic beverages, food items, medication, mobile electronic items, and cosmetics. Shoplifting involves the concealment of these items in a bag or under a coat or jacket.

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Acts that Constitute Shoplifting

Everyone typically thinks that you need to leave the store with the stolen item to get charged with Shoplifting. The law defines shoplifting as willful concealment of retail merchandise; it is possible to get a shoplifting charge without leaving the retail establishment. Slipping retail items in your handbag, backpack, or under your jacket is enough to get you in trouble as long as your intention to permanently deprive the store of the item is clear. For example; during a trip to the local store, Meagan picks various make-up items and hides them in her purse. In this case, a security guard has the power to detain Meagan even though she has not yet left the store with the items.

In most states in the United States, altering the contents of an item or switching the barcodes to pay less is considered as shoplifting. For example, when you switch the barcode of an expensive perfume with that of a cheaper fragrance so that you may pay less, you are guilty of shoplifting. Same applies when you switch the contents by exchanging the covering carton, lead or container so that you may pay less.

Detention of Shoplifters

Police officers do not guard malls and shopping stores. Instead, private security agents offer security for these establishments. When you are a suspect for shoplifting, what happens to you? Is it legal for a suspect to get detained without his or her will? False imprisonment is holding a suspect by a private citizen against his or her will. Criminal laws of the land traditionally prohibited false imprisonment. To deal with shoplifting, many states have enacted special by-laws and statutes that allow security guards to detain and interrogate suspects as they await the arrival of the police.

The merchant or store owner is allowed to detain the offender in the case of shoplifting. If the offender refuses to produce the stolen items, the merchant can conduct a reasonable search within reasonable limits. The merchant is allowed to search the suspect's handbag, purse, backpack, or whatever form of a package that can be used to conceal items. The merchant or security guard on duty is not allowed to search the suspect's clothing. These powers are given to store owners, movie theater operators, and librarians.

Limitations were created to prevent security guards from abusing the powers given to then in the case of shoplifting. Suspects may be detained if there is "probable cause" that a crime has occurred. Probable cause is established through witness (other customers) statements, surveillance video recordings, or personal observation. Mere suspicion of a crime is not sufficient to imply probable cause. The security guards cannot hold a suspect for an unlimited period to force a suspect to sign a confession or waiver personal rights. Questioning or interrogating the suspect is allowed within the limits of reason. Use of force to interrogate or restrain the suspect is not permitted.

Charges for Shoplifting

In some states, shoplifting is a lesser form of larceny, and it is often referred to as "petty theft." Other states have established special statutes to deal with the shoplifting. The approach of a state to punish these crimes is described in its local or state penal code. For California, the Penal Code 459.5 defines shoplifting as gaining entry into an open business with the intention of stealing merchandise worth $950 or less. Stealing merchandise worth over $950 constitutes grand theft. The value of the items stolen is determined by the amount listed on the price tag.

According to the California Penal Code 459.5 PC; all acts of shoplifting shall be punished as a misdemeanor unless there are prior convictions against the defendant. A misdemeanor in California is a crime or offense with a maximum jail time sentence of one year in county jail. A misdemeanor is less serious than a felony but more severe than an infraction.

In California, there are two categories of misdemeanors depending on the punishments they serve:

  1. Standard California Misdemeanors: Punishable by jail time not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding $1,000 or both jail time and the fine.
  2. Gross or Aggravated Misdemeanors: Punishable by up to one year (364 days) of jail time or a fine of up to $1,000 or more or both.

As the law states, all shoplifting offenses shall be punished as misdemeanors except when the offender has a prior severe conviction under his or her criminal record. These prior offenses include forcible sex crimes, homicide, and any other offense that requires the perpetrator to register as a sex offender.

In California, a felony is a crime that is punishable by a maximum sentence of over one year in a county jail or prison. In addition to or in the stead of jail time, the convict may be fined up to $10,000. Alternatively, the court may sentence a felony offender to formal probation where the offender serves not more than a year in county jail.

The California Penal Code defines shoplifting as stealing items worth the value of $950 or less. It goes on to mention that, unless prior convictions, all shoplifting charges are treated as misdemeanor offenses. There is an exception to this rule when the items involved include explosives, firearms, or incendiary devices. Anyone accused of shoplifting these items shall be charged with felony shoplifting regardless of whether it is the first offense. The ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) monitors the sale transportation and loss of any goods that may be used in the making of bombs. This also includes ammonium nitrate (a key ingredient in plastic explosives that is also found in garden fertilizer). Shoplifting items that are monitored by the ATF could complicate the case to the jurisdiction of terrorism.

What is The Difference Between Misdemeanor Charges and Felony Charges?

Felony charges are more serious than misdemeanor charges. Because of this difference, felony punishments are more severe than misdemeanor punishments. Misdemeanor charges, according to the laws of California, are punishable by a jail sentence not exceeding one year (364 days). Misdemeanors may also include cash fines. Usually, the fine does not exceed $1,000. The fine charged depends on the value of the items stolen.

Felony charges are punishable by prison sentences that last longer than one year (364 days). The fines involved in felony charges are higher than those involved in misdemeanors. In California, felony fine can rise to $10,000. Felony charges may range in degree from one to five; one being the least serious and five being the most severe.

There are special charges referred to as "Wobblers." These crimes cannot be classified as misdemeanors or as felonies. For wobbler offenses, the prosecutor may decide to charge the offense as a felony or as a misdemeanor. The judge may also weigh in his decision in the matter and determine whether to punish the offense as a felony or as a misdemeanor conviction.

Shoplifting in The Case of Persons Under the Age of 18

What Happens When a Minor Gets Caught for Shoplifting?

16-year old Brad walks into a convenient store and stuffs several items in his backpack. Unfortunately for him, he is caught by the store manager. He is under the age of 18, what happens to him?

The store is allowed to detain Brad for a reasonable amount of time while they investigate young Brad's intent to steal. If the store discovers the stolen items in his backpack, the manager is required to call Brad's parents and the police. If charged, the store may sue Brad for attempting to steal their products. Merchants are allowed by the law to sue offenders for damages between $50 and $500. The merchant may also sue the offender for the value of retail items if they are recovered in a damaged state. For persons under the age of 18, the matter is handled by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). The OJJDP treats minors with the intention to correct their ways.

For first offenders, the court may release the minor to his or her parents with a stern warning. Other penalties include restitution, probation, diversion, counseling, confinement, or placement.

What Should You Do When Charged with Shoplifting?

Finding yourself on the wrong side of the law can be frustrating and emotionally draining. However, knowledge of your rights and how to handle the situation can help you develop a stronger defense for your case. Below are the top five things you should do when you are facing shoplifting charges.

  1. Do no flee store management or security: The first personnel on the scene of a possible shoplifting case is usually the mall or store security. The police are rarely involved unless they are called upon. When a guilty suspect is caught, some instincts may tempt the offender to flee the scene. Whether guilty or not, the suspect is advised to resist any temptation to flee. If you run from the store security, it may be used against you in court as strong evidence of guilt. Instead of escaping, you should comply (for instance, if you are detained for longer than adequate) can be used to challenge the merchant in court.
  2. Do not make any custodial statements to the police: Once the store hands you over to the police, you will feel obligated to make an "innocent statement to the police." In most cases, these statements are used as an admission of guilt. Therefore, making your defense a harder task than it could have been. "You have the right to remain silent," this right is protected by the constitution of the land. Do not talk your way into an unfortunate conviction. When the police question you, invoke your right to counsel. The law requires any form of questioning to stop until the arrival of your lawyers.
  3. Hire a qualified and competent defense attorney: A shoplifting charge can evolve to a serious criminal charge. You need someone who is more experienced in the field — a lawyer who understands California's legal fabric. At Leah Legal Practices, our phone lines are open 24/7 every day of the year. We know that law is not a 9-5 job but an all-day and all-night venture.
  4. Make restitution:  In most cases, if you are caught for shoplifting, it means that you did not get away with the goods. In case the goods were damaged during the incident, the merchant may ask for restitution. In such a case, make restitution immediately. If you are confident in your innocence and wish to challenge the matter in court, you are allowed to ignore the call to make restitution. If you are not sure about how to respond, consult with your lawyer.
  5. Make sure you appear in court: A summons issued by the courts should be honored. If you do not appear in court on the set date, the judge will issue a warrant for your arrest. In court, you will have to issue a plea; Guilty or Not Guilty. If you plead guilty, it is advisable that you ask your lawyer to request the judge to consider expunction when you complete your sentence. Consult with your lawyer heavily on how to conduct yourself in court.    

What Are the Merchant's Rights in Case of Shoplifting?

Most malls and stores do not have policemen as security. Instead, they may hire private guards for security. Security guards and private citizens do not have the same powers that police officers have. However, during shoplifting, the owner of the store (the merchant), or anyone hired to manage the security of establishment, inherits certain powers to secure the suspect. Below are the rights of the merchant in the case of shoplifting.

The merchant has the right to detain the suspect for a reasonable amount of time while he or she waits for the arrival of the police. This right also extends to movie theater operators who have established probable cause for detention. Probable cause in a movie theater could be the operation of a video recording device within the premises.

If the suspect refuses to hand over the stolen items, the merchant has the right to conduct a reasonable search. A reasonable search means going through the suspect's handbag, purse, backpack, or any other equivalent. Searching the suspects' immediate clothes are not considered as reasonable.

Should a need arise to restrain the suspect, the merchant has the power to use reasonable but undeadly force to suppress the suspect. The need to apply restraint could be triggered when the suspect of shoplifting threatens to destroy the merchandise.

The merchant may sue the suspect or the parents' of the suspect (in the case of a minor) for damages between $50-$500. The market value of the merchandise shall be determined by the value of the goods as stated by the price tag.

The Shoplifter's Rights

In case the merchant uses an unreasonable force, and you are not resisting, then you have the legal privilege to defend yourself.

The merchant can only search your items if he or she has probable cause. Without probable cause, you can refuse to be searched. The merchants cannot frisk or search the shoplifter's immediate clothing unless the shoplifter allows it. It is not advisable to permit a close frisk or search as you could be waiving your right to sue the store for misconduct.

In case your rights were infringed during detention, you have the right to sue the merchant.

Find a Shoplifting Defense Attorney Near Me

In summary, when you are charged with shoplifting, do not resist detention or flee from the scene. If the merchant has probable cause to search your possessions, comply. Most important of all, call our Los Angeles criminal lawyer for the best criminal defense in Van Nuys. We have enough experience to defend you or your loved one against any charges of shoplifting. In case you feel like your rights were violated during the process call us today for a free consultation. We have the best lawyers ready to defend your rights.

Call 818-484-1100 today!