A shoplifting conviction can have serious consequences. Understanding California’s shoplifting criminal law can help minimize those consequences.
California’s Shoplifting Law
Accused shoplifters can be charged with Shoplifting (Penal Code Section 459.5), Petty Theft (Penal Code Section 488), or Grand Theft (Penal Code Section 487).
If the value of the merchandise stolen is less than $950, the prosecutor will charge the defendant with either petty theft or shoplifting. But the prosecutor cannot charge the defendant with both crimes.
The difference in the petty theft and shoplifting law is in what the prosecutor must prove. For a petty theft conviction, the prosecutor must show that the defendant actually carried away the stolen merchandise. But for a shoplifting conviction, the prosecutor must show that the defendant entered the store during regular business hours with the intent to steal the merchandise.
Both petty theft and shoplifting are misdemeanors. The potential penalties are identical. If convicted, the court can sentence the defendant to either summary probation, or up to 6 months in county jail. The court can also fine the defendant up to $1,000.
However, if the defendant already has some other serious criminal convictions, the shoplifting charge can become a felony. In this case, the sentence can be 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in jail, and the fine can be up to $10,000.
If the value of the merchandise stolen is over $950 dollars a shoplifter can be charged with grand theft. Grand theft can be either a misdemeanor or felony. If it’s a misdemeanor the potential sentence is up to 1 year in jail. But if it’s a felony the sentence can be 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in jail.
In addition to the criminal consequences, the merchant can also sue the shoplifter for damages.
Defenses to a Shoplifting Charge
There are three main defenses to shoplifting:
- a lack of intent to steal,
- factual innocence, or
- police misconduct.
To prove a lack of intent to steal, it must be shown that there was no intent to steal the merchandise. For a shoplifting charge (not petty theft), the intent to steal must have been present when entering the store. So a lack of intent defense can even work if there was no intent to steal upon entering, but it was developed after entering the store.
To prove factual innocence, it simply must be shown that the defendant did not actually steal the merchandise.
Finally, to prove police misconduct, some sort of police abuse must be proven. This could be something accidental, such as mishandling of evidence. Or it could be something intentional, such as a prejudice towards a particular type of suspect, or planting of evidence.
What To Do If You’re Arrested for Shoplifting
If you are arrested for shoplifting, there are two things you must do. First, you must exercise your right to remain silent so that nothing you say will hurt your case in court. Second, you must get a criminal defense attorney who can represent your interests and protect your rights.