We all know that the holiday shopping season from Halloween to Christmas is when retail merchants make most of their annual income.  It is also a season when shoplifting increases as people are bombarded with advertising to come out and shop.  People shoplift for many different reasons:

  • Some people are in need.
  • Some do it just to see if they can.
  • Some have depression or psychological issues that cause them to try to take merchandise which they would ordinarily never consider.

No matter what the reason, many times people get caught, and the price to pay is high: The $50 bottle of perfume taken from the store could result in petty theft charges being filed under California penal code section 488.  This would cost thousands in court fees, not to mention lost employment opportunities as a result of background checks by virtually all employers.  Or worse, a higher value item could result in charges of grand theft (theft of items valued at more than $950) under penal code sections 484-489.

Some counties, including Santa Clara County, offer a diversion program for first offenders so that the offender can avoid having a criminal record if this is truly a one-time mistake.

However, the prosecution usually does not offer these types of programs for:

  • People that commit a second theft offense;
  • People with other types of crimes already on their record;
  • People who take merchandise which retails for $950 or above; and,
  • People whose thefts are charged as burglaries, there are generally no programs offered by the prosecution.

How is the value of the merchandise determined when someone has been charged with shoplifting?  

The store uses their RETAIL cost—the highest price on the price tag.  For example, if the store advertises that everything is 50% off, the shoplifter is still charged the “original” price—even in stores that ALWAYS have their goods on sale.  It is not difficult to see how a “petty theft” can actually be a “grand theft.”

Stores also have the right under the  California Penal Code to their costs incurred in apprehending shoplifters.  This is a bill from the store the shoplifter receives even if the store has all of their merchandise back.  It often amounts to $400!  That bill has nothing to do with whether the case goes to court or not.

Shoplifters can also be charged with Burglary

Under the California penal code, a second degree burglary occurs when a person enters the store with the intent to steal before they walk inside.  Prosecutors may charge someone with burglary if they walk into the store with tools in their pockets or purses to remove inventory control devices, sometimes if the person has a scissor in their bag and is cutting off plastic price tags.  Persons have even been charged with burglary if they walk into the store carrying multiple bags!

The theory on the bags is that the shoplifter makes it appear on CCTV that they are walking out of the store with the same bags they were carrying on entry.  People buy devices on the internet to “fool” inventory control systems.  However, if a person is caught shoplifting and has such a device on his or her person, that person is likely to be charged with burglary and even possession of burglary tools.

So stick with the eggnog and the Christmas cookies if a trip to the store looks more tempting than you can afford since the cost of shoplifting is very high indeed!