Frequently Asked Questions
What is shoplifting?
Shoplifting is a common term for theft or stealing of any kind from a retail store. It is generally defined as taking merchandise from a retail store without paying for it or without intending to pay for it.
Are the criminal laws for shoplifting the same in every state?
No – The laws and rules regarding shoplifting are determined by each individual state and by local jurisdictions. Shoplifting laws can vary widely from state to state and jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
What can a store do if they suspect a person of shoplifting?
Under most state laws, a store has the legal right to stop and detain a suspect if they have “probable cause” – meaning they have seen the suspect take the merchandise, conceal it, move or modify the item and/or fail to pay for the item before leaving the store. The store also has the right to demand the return of the merchandise, to ban the offender from their store for a period of time, to prosecute the offender criminally and / or charge the offender with a civil penalty as well.
Does a person have to actually take merchandise to be charged with shoplifting or retail theft?
No. In some cases, a person can be charged with shoplifting if they are with someone else who shoplifts. If a person acts as a lookout or does something to distract the store employees while someone else shoplifts something they can still be charged with shoplifting.
There are many forms of shoplifting. For example, a person can also be charged with shoplifting if they change the price or modify a price tag on an item or in some cases, even if they eat and sample food that they have not paid for as they shop – unless of course the food is clearly marked “Free Samples.”
Isn’t shoplifting considered a minor offense? What determines if the charge is a misdemeanor or a felony?
Shoplifting is theft and a criminal offense no matter how much a person steals. However, the actual charges are determined by the facts of the case and/or the dollar value of the merchandise stolen. The dollar value threshold varies from state to state. For example, shoplifting is generally considered a misdemeanor (petit theft or larceny) if the value of the merchandise is less than $200 – $500. If the value of the stolen goods exceeds $500, it is often considered a felony and a person can be charged with grand theft or grand larceny. (Refer to Shoplifting Laws by State above to find the shoplifting laws in your state.)
Who decides on the shoplifting charge?
The shoplifting laws and penalties which apply to a case is determined by the police and/or the prosecutor. The final charge is based on the facts of the case collected by the store that made the apprehension. In addition to the value of the merchandise stolen, the specific charge and the seriousness of the charge can vary widely depending on many others factors including a criminal background, history of retail theft and whether or not the person had proper identification and cooperated when they were caught.
What happens if it is a person’s first time shoplifting?
Again, this depends on many of the factors noted above. But in many states and jurisdictions, the police, prosecutors and judges have the option to offer first-time offenders an opportunity to complete community service, an education program or other type of alternative sentencing program in lieu of a harsher sentence and a criminal record. In fact, if a person completes an education program before going to court, many judges and prosecutors will take this into consideration at sentencing.
These pages on Shoplifting and the Law are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to be legal advice. NASP does not provide legal advice. If you have been accused of shoplifting, find an experienced criminal attorney. Click here to find an attorney
Shoplifting and Civil Law
Important Points about Civil Recovery
- Civil theft laws have been enacted by state legislatures to help compensate retailers for the variety of losses, costs and expenses associated with theft and shoplifting generally, and to cover any legal “damages” associated with these incidents specifically. The exemplary or penalty damage component of these statutory civil damages requests (often called “civil penalty” or “civil recovery”) is often allowed to be requested even if the merchandise or property was recovered and not damaged.
- In order for a retailer to establish that a legal “injury” occurred, the retailer usually only needs to show an invasion of legal right (i.e. that the individual took possession of store merchandise with the intent to deprive the retail client of the benefit, use or full value of the item) without requiring any physical damage to the merchandise.
- If there was damage to the merchandise, then the actual damages can be requested via civil demand process and/or pursuant to a criminal proceeding. While criminal proceedings address the recovery of the value of the loss as restitution, in civil proceedings, courts can consider other actual damages allowed by common law in addition to the statutory damages described above.
- Most of these laws were enacted to serve as a civil penalty against theft offenders but because parents are in the best position to punish their own children, the civil laws often make parents or legal guardians financially responsible for the civil damages either along with their children or instead of their children so they in turn can help their minor children understand the significance of their wrongful acts.
- In almost every state, civil demands are separate from and not dependent on any criminal action that may or may not have been taken. Even if no criminal charges are ever filed or regardless of the outcome of a criminal matter if there is one, the retailer may still make a common law civil damages request and most often, a statutory civil recovery request.
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