Arrested for shoplifting? Here are the possible charges

There isn’t really one charge of “shoplifting” in the California Penal Code.  There are theft charges and other related crimes on the books.

First – Petty Theft (Penal Code 484 and 488)

In general, theft is defined in Penal Code 484.  From there, theft is classified under a different code section depending on the dollar amount of the property taken, what was taken or how it was taken.  Petty theft )(Penal Code section 488 is theft of anything under $950.  This is the typical “shoplifting” charge.  In order to prove petty theft, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you “took and carried away” property of someone else without consent and that it was valued at under $950.  [The law used to be under $400, but it’s now $950]  Petty theft is a misdemeanor and carries as a maximum punishment six months in county jail and/or a thousand dollar fine.  There can also be probation for up to three years and other court costs and consequences.

Another common shoplifting charge – Burglary (Penal Code section 459)

If the police think that you entered the store with the intent to steal, they can also charge you with burglary.  One of the typical things they look for is whether you had money, credit or debit cards or other ways to pay for the merchandise with you at the time.  If you had no way to pay for the items, they try to argue that you must have intended to steal when you went it since you had no money. They try to make it into a burglary charge if they think you brought something in with the intent to use it to hide merchandise.  Many women get wrongfully accused of burglary since they were carrying an oversized purse or bag.  Why is it a big difference whether or not you’re charged with burglary?  Petty theft is a misdemeanor.  Burglary can be charged either as a felony or a misdemeanor by the prosecutor.  Even as a misdemeanor, it carries a much higher maximum sentence (one year instead of just six months for petty theft). For more information about burglary and the intent required, see this post:  Burglary and intent in a shoplifting case

Grand theft (Penal Code 487)

If the dollar amount of the merchandise was over $950, the charge is most likely going to be grand theft. Grand theft can be charged either as a felony or a misdemeanor.  As a felony, it caries up to 3 years in custody.  As a misdemeanor, it is up to one year in jail.

Possession of burglary tools (Penal Code 466)

Another possible charge that could be filed in a shoplifting case is possession of burglary tools.  In most cases, the “tools” they are referring to are things that are used to break into a building or car, but it can include anything that “is intended to be used in committing a misdemeanor or felony.”  So – a pair of pliers intended to be used as a tool to remove sensor tags from clothing and even possibly nail clippers or a small pocketknife could be charged under this section.  It is a misdemeanor that carries up to six months in county jail.

What to do if you have been arrested for shoplifting or petty theft

The sooner we start working on your defense, the better.  There may be things we discuss that get you in a better position for a good outcome in court.  Our goal is the very best outcome possible.  Do we have legal defenses?  Factual defenses? Can we try for a resolution that doesn’t involve a theft conviction on your record?  All those things are possible.  The only way to know which way your case is headed is to sit down and discuss it in detail.

Civil Demand letters

As one final note – often in shoplifting situations, the store or a law firm on their behalf will issue a “civil demand” letter, asking for hundreds of dollars.  We can discuss that letter and why my recommendation is to not pay their outrageous demands when we meet.

Give me a call or send an email so we can discuss your case.

Joe Dane


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