Shoplifting Penalties, Myths, and Strategies for Defense

Shoplifting can be a confusing and embarrassing charge. Some people have a psychological condition – called kleptomania – that makes it a struggle to resist the impulse to shoplift. Some shoplift for a source of income, stealing and later reselling items like diapers and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. Others are charged “accidentally” – they may have “concealed” an item on their person, though they did not leave the store and always intended to pay for it, or they may have gone through the checkout and only forgot to pay for one item. Others shoplift out of a very real need, and still, others simply make a mistake.

If you’ve been charged with a first-time shoplifting offense in New Jersey, you could face up to six months of jail time, a fine of $1,000, and 10 days of community service. If this isn’t your first offense, the penalties could be much steeper. You need an experienced attorney in NJ if you want to reduce the impact of a shoplifting charge on your life – potentially minimizing fines, keeping you out of jail, and keeping the incident off your criminal record. In the meantime, it will help to educate yourself about the common penalties, myths, and defense strategies associated with shoplifting charges in New Jersey.

Shoplifting myths

Most people get everything they know about shoplifting from movies and TV: scenes of charming urchins running away from shopkeepers, or teens pushing each other into acts of petty theft as a coming-of-age ritual. Entertainment glorifies the act and often skips over the consequences altogether. Few people understand the seriousness of a shoplifting charge until they find themselves in court. Don’t let that happen to you. Before you go to trial, dispel some of the most common shoplifting myths.

If you are caught shoplifting, the store will release you after you return the merchandise.

This may be how things work in the movies, but it probably won’t happen in real life. Just like someone arrested for intoxicated driving will spend the night in jail, a person caught shoplifting will face criminal charges. Store owners take many preventative measures against shoplifting, including installing video cameras, employing security, and putting sensors on valuable items. Some retail employees even use apps that let them share pictures of suspicious customers, not just with their coworkers, but with other stores nearby. Prosecuting charges against shoplifters is another preventative measure: it discourages anyone else who might be tempted to shoplift.

You have to leave the store with merchandise to be arrested for shoplifting.

In New Jersey, shoplifting is not the same as stealing. You may be guilty of shoplifting if you have concealed any unpurchased merchandise, even if you have not left the store. Sometimes concealment suggests intent, as when a person hides an item in a pocket, inside a zipped jacket, or in another article of clothing. However – especially with the rise of canvas tote bags shoppers bring in with them – sometimes shoppers place items in a bag and continue browsing the store, intending to pay for everything they’re holding, and are surprised when store authorities stop them for shoplifting.

If I’m charged with shoplifting, I can pay a fine and move on.

A shoplifting charge isn’t like a traffic ticket. The fine isn’t all you have to worry about. These fines, first off, are much steeper than the fines for most traffic violations: shoplifting fines start at $1,000 and go much higher. Even the most minor shoplifting charges carry the possibility of jail time. All shoplifting charges carry recommended penalties of community service, ranging from 10 to 25 days.

Also, you’ll be liable for civil charges from the retailer, who will attempt to secure an award for more than the value of the item in question.

Shoplifting is a victimless crime.

There are real victims of shoplifting crimes. Small business owners suffer significant losses from shoplifting each year. These small businesses run on tight budgets that don’t factor in money for missing merchandise. Even individuals within large corporations suffer because of shoplifters. No, you aren’t really “hurting” Macy’s or Steinmart if you steal a tube of lipstick or a tie clip from the store; and you aren’t even hurting Christian Louboutin if you steal a pair of his shoes. Major companies may lose hundreds of thousands to shoplifters each year, but this represents a small portion of their revenue. However, store managers bear the pressure from shoplifting incidents, and regular clerks after them. Increased shoplifting leads to increased security measures, and this can lead to unintended results, including racial or other appearance-based profiling and the molestation of innocent shoppers, and the implementation of degrading policies, like clock-out searches or transparent-handbag mandates for employees. If you’ve shoplifted, you’ve contributed in your small way toward a less civil society.

Perhaps most immediately, though, you are the victim of your decision to shoplift. The fines you pay will be far more significant than the value of the lost merchandise to the store. The shame and social stigma you will feel in court, and possibly in jail or performing mandated community service, will be incalculable. A conviction will appear on most background checks and may prevent you from securing a job.

If you are guilty of shoplifting, an adept attorney can minimize the consequences – but there will still be consequences. If you are innocent and were wrongfully charged, an attorney with enough experience can eliminate all charges and clear your name – but know that you likely landed in this situation because of measures to stop other, real shoplifters.

A look at shoplifting penalties

As you can see, the shoplifting “numbers” vary widely, both in terms of how an item’s value determines the severity of the charge, and in the possible penalties. Depending on the judge, your attorney might be able to introduce pertinent facts from your case or your background, and move that judge to assign a penalty well below the maximum in one of the four categories above.

However, there are penalties beyond fines and jail time. Shoplifting is one of the few convictions which carries community service obligations at every level.

Community service as a criminal penalty

  • First offense: at least 10 days.
  • Second offense: at least 15 days.
  • Third or subsequent offense: a maximum of 25 days of community service and a minimum of 90 days imprisonment.

While the grading of offenses applies to juveniles charged with shoplifting, the mandatory community service and imprisonment sentences do not apply to juveniles. Also, adjudications of delinquency for shoplifting will be handled separately, and will not count as prior offenses influencing the penalties described above.

Civil Penalties

In addition to criminal penalties – fines, imprisonment, and community service – a shoplifter will face civil penalties. Victimized merchants can sue adult shoplifters or the custodial guardians or parents of minor shoplifters in civil court for damages. In New Jersey, merchants are entitled to the value of the merchandise if not recovered in its original condition (up to $500), plus damages incurred in apprehending the shoplifter, and a penalty up to $150.

Also, you may find your picture on a “face wall” of suspicious customers, either displayed in the store, or in the back, where only employees can see it.

Defending against a shoplifting charge

Each shoplifting case is unique. Whether you accidentally concealed an item or shoplifted with intent, whether this is a first offense or the most recent of many, an experienced lawyer will be able to guide your case to a better conclusion than if you face this alone, or with a lawyer who doesn’t specialize in shoplifting defense.

To win a conviction, a prosecutor must prove an alleged shoplifter’s “intent to deprive” the store of the property in question. There are many ways to call this in to question. Fleeing the authorities is likely going to be irrefutable proof of your guilt (though there may be exceptions even to this). Leaving the store (calmly) is not absolute proof, but only additional evidence. On the other hand, if you pay for some items at the checkout, the court will likely take that as evidence that you did intend to pay for another item that you left the store without purchasing.

The goal, of course, is to get your charges reduced and to minimize the penalties within any given charge-bracket. However, since 2000 the Attorney General in New Jersey has warned county and municipal prosecutors against offering plea bargains in most cases. The official guidelines are as follows:

  • Second-degree shoplifting offenses shall not be downgraded to disorderly persons offenses and remanded to municipal court.
  • Third-degree shoplifting offenses shall not be downgraded to disorderly persons offenses and remanded to municipal court if the full retail value of the merchandise taken is equal to or greater than $2,000.
  • Ordinarily, third-degree offenses where the full retail value of the merchandise is less than $2,000 should not be downgraded to disorderly persons offenses and remanded to municipal court. However, such cases may be downgraded and remanded to municipal court if there are trial proof issues.
  • Fourth-degree offenses may be downgraded to disorderly persons offenses and remanded to municipal court, at the discretion of the County Prosecutor or his or her designee. However, a fourth-degree offense shall not be downgraded if the offense constitutes the offender’s third or subsequent shoplifting offense.

These are important guidelines to keep in mind to temper your expectations about an outcome, but they are not absolute rules. At our offices, we’ve handled cases that resulted in third-degree shoplifting charges downgraded to disorderly persons offenses even when the shoplifted item was worth over $2,000. As in almost any aspect of the law, the result depends on the unique circumstances of the case, on the judge, and the skillful handling of your attorney.

Experienced NJ shoplifting defense

If you’re facing shoplifting charges in NJ, whether for a mistake or an accident, a first-time offense or a second or third, you can count on our experience. Contact The Law Office of Carl Spector today to set up a free, confidential consultation in either our Hackensack or Fair Lawn, New Jersey locations. In the meantime, you can continue browsing the legal resources in our blog and video vault.