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Charged With Shoplifting in California: What You Need to Know

California Shoplifting Laws

Upwards of $13 billion in goods are shoplifted each year, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. While penalties for shoplifting are not as harsh as penalties for other crimes, those charged with shoplifting can still face fines and jail time. If you've been charged with shoplifting, here's what you need to know.

What Constitutes Shoplifting?

Under California Law (Penal Code 495.5), shoplifting is defined as entering an open business with the intent to steal property valued at less than $950 and is usually charged as a misdemeanor offense. This crime is not as cut and dry as sticking something into your pocket and walking out of the store with it. You can be charged with shoplifting if you're suspected of committing any one of a number of various acts, such as changing the tag on an item with one of a lesser value.

Even though you didn't intend to leave the store without paying for merchandise, switching tags is still considered shoplifting because it deprives the owner of the true value of the item. Likewise, finding a receipt in the parking lot and returning to the store to track down an identical item and returning it for a refund is also considered shoplifting.

What are the Penalties for Theft?

The penalties for shoplifting depend on the value of the stolen items, the type of theft and your criminal history. Here's a breakdown.

Items Worth $50 or Less 

If you have no prior record, your shoplifting incident may be considered an infraction and you may be subject to fines of up to $250.

Items Valued Between $50 and $950 

With no prior record, you face a misdemeanor petty theft charge and a mandatory fine of up to $1,000.

Items Worth over $950

Depending on your criminal history and the specific circumstances of the theft, you may be charged with misdemeanor or felony petty theft and face up to a year of jail time.

Special Circumstances

There are circumstances where you may be charged with felony grand theft, even if the value is below $950. These circumstances include stealing a firearm or having a serious charge on your record, such as a forcible sex crime. In this case, you could face up to three years of jail time.

Most offenders, however, are charged with misdemeanor theft.

What are the Options for First-Time Offenders?

Your options are more limited if you've been charged with shoplifting before. However, if you're a first-time offender, you may be eligible for what's referred to as a diversion program. It's designed to reduce the risk of reoffending by offering an alternative to prosecution.

Instead of being prosecuted for the crime, you would instead pay restitution in various ways, such as paying back the value of the items. Performing community service and complying with other program requirements as the court sees fit is another option.

In some circumstances, you may also receive a plea bargain whereby you agree to plead guilty to a lesser charge and penalty in exchange for avoiding jail time. You’ll still need to comply with court-ordered requirements, but your penalty will be less severe than it would have been otherwise.

How Long After Shoplifting Can You be Caught in California?

In California, a suspected thief can be arrested and charged with shoplifting up to one year after the alleged incident took place. 

How Can Offenders Defend Shoplifting Charges?

Not everyone accused of shoplifting is guilty. It's the prosecutor's responsibility to prove that you intended to steal an item of value. If you did not intend to steal anything, then you have every right to mount a defense against the theft charges.

There are a number of reasons an innocent person may be charged with petty theft. Perhaps you were distracted by your child who was having a tantrum in the store. In a panic to get your child out of the store and calm them down, you may have forgotten that you had an item in your hand. In this case, surveillance video may back up your account of events.

California law punishes individuals who take someone else's property without consent. If you're an adult charged with shoplifting, it's a good idea to consult with an experienced attorney to be advised of your rights and review your options.

If you’ve been charged with shoplifting, whether you were guilty of the crime or not, call the experienced Redlands criminal defense lawyers at Kassel and Kassel for help defending your charges in court.