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Shoplifting

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

"Shoplifting" generally refers to the theft of merchandise from a store or place of business. Shoplifting is a type of larceny, which simply means taking the property of someone else without their permission, and with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property taken.

Though states may punish shoplifting under their general larceny or theft statutes, many states have enacted statutes to specifically address shoplifting. States may refer to the crime by different names, including "retail theft" and "concealment of merchandise."

Elements of Shoplifting

Each state's laws vary, but generally shoplifting offenses include two basic elements:

  1. Willfully concealing or taking possession of items being offered for sale; and
  2. The intent to deprive the items' rightful owner (typically the store) of possession of the items, without paying the purchase price.

Crucially, this means that in most states, one can break shoplifting laws without attempting to get out of a store with stolen goods. Simply concealing merchandise, inside or outside the store, will often be enough. One must have the intent to take the item from the store; however, many states consider the act of concealing merchandise to be evidence of intent.

In addition to hiding an item to avoid paying for it, shoplifting laws also make it illegal to take actions to avoid paying the full purchase price for an item. This can include altering price tags, manipulating merchandise, and putting goods into different containers or packaging to avoid paying all or part of the purchase price.

Severity of Shoplifting Charges

Like charges for other types of theft, the severity of shoplifting charges generally depends on the value of the goods involved. If firearms, explosives or incendiary devices are shoplifted, the severity of charges increases in many states.

States laws often include a range of charges, and can allow prosecutors discretion in deciding which charges to pursue in a given case. In many states, the range of shoplifting charges runs from a low level "infraction," to misdemeanor, up to differing degrees of felony charges. In some states, any shoplifting offense will be charged as at least a misdemeanor.

Often, the prosecutor will be able to choose between multiple levels of charges. Prior criminal convictions, specifically prior theft convictions, regularly play a large part in the prosecutor's decision of which charge to pursue. In some states, prior theft convictions automatically result in a more severe charge.

Typically, infractions result in a fine. Depending on the state, misdemeanor charges may result in jail time (less than one year), probation and/or a fine. Felonies may result in a longer jail sentence, probation and/or a larger fine.

State laws vary widely in the severity of shoplifting charges. In some places, any shoplifting offense may result in a jail sentence.

In-Store Detention of Shoplifters

While there is such thing as a citizen's arrest, private citizens generally may not legally hold people against their will. Doing so opens the door to civil and even criminal liability for false imprisonment. However, many states have enacted statutes specifically authorizing stores and their employees to detain suspected shoplifters in certain circumstances. These laws serve to protect the stores from lawsuits claiming false imprisonment or false arrest.

Though these laws vary, store owners and their employees generally are allowed to detain an individual when they have probable cause to suspect shoplifting. However, any such detention of a suspected shoplifter must be reasonable in length and manner. Detentions without probable cause, for an unreasonable amount of time, or in an unreasonable manner may leave the store open to liability for false imprisonment and possibly other claims.

What constitutes probable cause to suspect shoplifting comes down to case by case specifics. Mere suspicion typically will not suffice. Most states require that the store or its employees have evidence which would lead a reasonable person to believe that shoplifting had occurred or was in progress. If the store bases its detention of a suspected shoplifter on information from a non-employee informer, that informer must have a reasonable basis for suspecting shoplifting.

Whether a detention is considered unreasonable is determined on a case by case basis, but there are factors that can nudge the detention into unreasonable territory quickly. The three most common factors are the length of detention, the purpose of the detention, and the force that was used. A excessively long detention continued for the purpose of securing a confession or a release of store liability, or the use of excessive force would be considered unreasonable under many states' laws. An unreasonable detention could leave the store and its employees open to liability for false imprisonment and possibly other claims, such as assault or battery.

Get Legal Help with Your Shoplifting Charges

Depending on the laws of your state and specific factors such as the value of any items shoplifted, if you're facing shoplifting charges they could be treated as infractions, misdemeanors or felonies, and could result in incarceration, probation and/or a fine. Because of these possibilities, you'll want to learn more about your specific situation by talking to a criminal defense attorney near you today.

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