Can You Be Charged & Prosecuted For Accidentally Shoplifting?

Posted By Stephen G. Rodriguez & Partners ||

Have you or someone you know been accused and charged with shoplifting? It can happen to anyone and there are several reasons people shoplift:

  • Economic Necessity - Some people do not have the money to purchase what they need or want.
  • Excitement & Thrill – Some shoplifters experience a high or an adrenaline rush when stealing. Often these shoplifters have no need for the products they steal but rather the stealing is done just for the thrill. This type of stealing is rooted in psychological problems such as depression and anxiety.
  • Kleptomania – Some shoplifters have an irresistible impulse to steal. They steal anything even if they don't need the products they steal. They cannot stop themselves. This type of stealing is called Kleptomania and is often linked to OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and other psychological problems.
  • Peer Pressure – Peer pressure is very common, especially among teenagers. Acknowledgment and acceptance within a peer group can be strong motivators.

Shoplifting in California

According to California Penal Code sections 484 and 488, shoplifting, otherwise known as petty theft, is prosecuted as a misdemeanor and is defined as taking personal property of another valued at $950 or less, without the person's consent and with the intent of permanently depriving the owner of the property. If the value of the merchandise exceeds $950 then the charge is Grand Theft. Grand Theft can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony.

Shoplifting means taking merchandise from a commercial establishment without paying for it (Penal Code section 459.5). Example: Marty goes into a phone store and approaches the cellular phone counter. There he picks up one of the phones and slips it into a shopping bag. He then leaves the store without paying for the phone. He is stopped outside and approached buy Loss Prevention personnel who escort him back into the store. Marty may be arrested and charged under California's shoplifting law. In Los Angeles, theft is sometimes charged together commercial burglary. Commercial burglary is defined as the crime of entering a commercial establishment with the intent to commit a crime in the place entered. For this charge to stick it is critical the intent precede the entering of the business. This may be difficult to prove since some shoplifters commit their shoplifting on impulse.

Accidental Shoplifting

Most people caught shoplifting claim “it was mistake” or “it was an accident” and immediately offer to pay for the items they were caught with. The real truth often is those caught stealing knew exactly what they were doing and were trying to cover up their theft before they were apprehended.

So can shoplifting be accidental? The answer is YES. Accidental shoplifting occurs when the person stealing merchandise from the store did not really intend to deprive the store owner of their merchandise. The whole issue on whether shoplifting is accidental revolves on “intent.” Taking property or merchandise from a store by mistake or accident is not considered theft/shoplifting. Let's be clear about this. Accidental shoplifting does not apply to people who intended to steal something but use the “accidental excuse” once they are caught. Accidental shoplifting refers to those people who truly made a mistake, forgot to pay for the items, and who did not have the intent to deprive the store owner of that merchandise.

Let's discuss real life situations and see how this applies:

Example: Mary walked into a store and filled her basket with items, but a couple of small items fell inside one of the larger ones. The cashier doesn’t notice this and scans only the large item. After Mary pays and leaves, she notices the items were not paid for. Should Mary fear getting into trouble and what should Mary do? Once Mary realizes those were overlooked by the cashier, she should return to the store immediately and pay for the items. This clearly appears to be a mistake and would be a defense to a shoplifting charge if Mary was prosecuted for shoplifting. What if the security cameras in the store captured evidence making it look like those items were purposely concealed? This could be a problem for Mary because the concealing of the items would be evidence (indirect) that she planned to steal the merchandise.

Example: Joe is carrying an item he intended to pay for, but then absent-mindedly walked past the cash register and went outside to take a phone call. To a Loss Prevention officer, if a person has exited the store with merchandise, they have committed shoplifting and can be criminally charged. If there were no videos or witness statements stating that Joe was concealing merchandise in his clothing or in another shopping bag then Joe would have a reasonable and believable defense to his theft charge.

Possible Legal Defenses

Ultimately, the determining factor in shoplifting cases is intent. Unfortunately, “it was an accident” or “I did intend pay for it" are excuses that loss prevention professionals and prosecutors hear all the time, and will not be a successful defense unless the totality of the evidence pointed to a mistake or to an accident. When video evidence is involved, the main thing Loss Prevention and prosecutors will focus on is the behavior of the customer while in the store, shown by store video and observations made by Loss Prevention staff. If the customer is seen selecting some merchandise and concealing that merchandise on their person or in another shopping bag; or if the customer takes off or switches price tags while in the store and then walks past the cashiers, he/she is likely to be arrested and charged with shoplifting.

Only the alleged offender knows of his or her own intent, making it almost to prove the incident was an accident or a mistake. Ultimately, whether you meant to pay or not, if you attempt to leave a store with unpaid merchandise and are caught, you will likely be criminally charged.

Facing Charges? Request a Free & Confidential Case Review

If you are facing shoplifting charges call our office to discuss your legal options. Confidential case reviews are available at no charge to the client.

Call (213) 481-6811 to schedule a consultation with a Los Angeles shoplifting defense lawyer.

Categories: Criminal Defense, English
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