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Tuesday, February 19, 2013
I Was Arrested for Shoplifting. Now What?
The following is a guide that I published on Avvo.com a couple years ago. I still get so many calls on the topic that I've decided to re-publish it here with a few updates.
Shoplifting is one of the most commonly charged offenses in California, with a huge range of possible penalties. I wrote the following legal guide to help answer some of the questions that I receive nearly every day on the topic.
Theft can be much more complicated than it looks on the surface because of the above-mentioned range of possible punishments. The simple act of walking into a store and taking some goods without paying can be classified as an infraction, a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on a lot of circumstances.
Before the prosecutor will decide what charges, if any, to file against a suspect, attorneys from the DA's office will take a number of facts into consideration -- What was the value of the thing taken? Was the property damaged in any way? Did the suspect use any force or the threat of force to take the property? What kind of criminal history does the suspect have? Did the suspect enter the store with the intent to commit theft or did the suspect decide to commit theft once he or she was already inside? Can it be proven that the theft was actually intentional or is there a chance that an innocent shopper simply forgot to pay for something? The answers to these questions will guide the prosecutors in deciding what types of criminal charges to file against a person suspected of shoplifting.
The Value of the Thing Taken
Typically, if the value of the property taken is low, nothing is damaged, the store receives the property back, and the suspect has no significant criminal history, the DA might be willing to reduce the charge to a simple infraction, similar to a speeding ticket. Depending on the county, the defendant might be required to take some classes, provide a DNA sample or make a financial contribution to a program that benefits victims of crimes before the case will be reduced from a misdemeanor to an infraction. An infraction will include some fines, but no probation and no jail time.
If the value of the thing taken is significant but less than $950, the suspect will probably be charged with misdemeanor petty theft. If, however, the suspect has some history of theft, if force was involved in the crime, or if it appears that the suspect entered the store with the plan to commit a theft, he or she could be looking at more serious charges, described below.
Any theft of goods valued at more than $950 will probably be charged as felony grand theft. Also, some theft of various agricultural products valued at more than $250 can also be charged as felony grand theft.
Defendant's Criminal History
Usually, if someone has had a shoplifting conviction reduced to an infraction in the past, the DA will not offer such a favorable deal again. The suspect will probably be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony this time.
A suspect with a prior conviction for petty theft can also be charged with a felony if he or she is convicted of petty theft a second time (petty theft with a prior). People don't always realize that stealing a candy bar can send them away for years if they've been convicted of stealing candy bars in the past.
Did the Suspect Use Force or the Threat of Force?
In California, robbery is defined as theft + force (or the threat of force). If a Loss Prevention Officer or a store clerk blocks your escape path and you push him, that act can transform a simple infraction into a serious, violent felony. This is called an "Estes Robbery" (shoplifting with force), and it can carry potential prison time.
The Civil Demand Letter
If you have recently been arrested for shoplifting, you will probably receive a letter in the mail from the store where you were caught or from the store's attorney. The letter will inform you that you owe the store a sum of money, usually several hundred dollars. The letter may contain other threatening language and will appear very intimidating. Disregard this letter. DO NOT SEND ANY MONEY. This is a common scam. You have no obligation to pay the store a penny, absent a court order to do so.
A civil demand letter is basically a threat to sue. The store is claiming that they suffered some loss and that you were responsible for whatever loss they are claiming. If you refuse to pay and you deny that you caused the store any loss, the store will have to decide whether or not it intends to sue you. Again, in order for the store to prevail in any civil suit, they will have to prove to the court that you caused them to suffer some actual, financial loss. If you did not cause the store to suffer any loss (because they received the property back and it was not damaged), then they will lose in a civil suit -- they have no damages and you owe them nothing. The store and their attorneys understand this basic economics. They will not waste their time and money to pursue a losing venture in civil court.
Of course, the civil demand has absolutely no effect on the CRIMINAL case against you. The DA will pursue the criminal theft charges regardless of whether or not you pay the store's civil demand. Paying money to the store will not help your criminal case, and refusing to pay the civil demand will not hurt your criminal case -- they are completely independent of each other.
Since shoplifting can carry such a huge range of possible penalties, you should immediately talk to a local attorney if you are arrested. Our firm has recently had a lot of success defending against shoplifting charges. Call for a free attorney consultation. (714) 449-3335. Ask for John.