Shoplifting is a particular category of theft crimes that deals with larceny against a retail establishment, as opposed to larceny against a person. Generally, the crime of shoplifting entails the willful concealment or taking of items owned by the retail establishment with the intent to deprive the store or other owner of them permanently.

Acts Constituting Shoplifting

Although we typically think of shoplifting as occurring only when an individual leaves a store with stolen items, the crime of shoplifting can be charged in a variety of circumstances. Since shoplifting involves not only the taking of items but also the “willful concealment” of them, it is possible to be charged with shoplifting even without leaving the store. Simply concealing goods will be enough to violate shoplifting laws as long as the perpetrator has the intention to deprive the owner of them permanently. For example, if a woman takes various make-up items while in a store and hides them in her backpack, a security guard may detain her for shoplifting even though she has not yet left the store.

Additionally, in many states, shoplifting laws prohibit the intentional altering of an item in order to avoid paying the full price of the item. This can include switching tags on items, manipulating the price written on a good, or changing the packaging of merchandise in order to get a lower price.

Detention of Shoplifters

Although our criminal laws typically prevent private citizens from holding others against their will, also known as false imprisonment, special exceptions have been carved out over the years for dealing with shoplifters. Since most stores do not employ police to watch for shoplifters, their owners are placed in a position of frequently needing to detain an alleged shoplifter until police can arrive. In order to do so, many states have enacted special statutes allowing stores and employees to detain shoplifters if certain requirements are met. Generally, someone suspected of shoplifting may be detained only if the store has “probable cause” to believe that a crime has occurred. Probable cause can be established through personal observations of the crime occurring, statements from customers, or actions recorded on surveillance video cameras. Mere suspicion that someone has been shoplifting is not sufficient.

It is important to note that these laws do not allow stores to hold suspected shoplifters for an unlimited amount of time, or to question them in an inappropriate manner. Instead, the detention and questioning of suspects must be reasonable. This will vary from case to case, but most courts have found that the use of excessive force in restraining a suspect is not reasonable, nor is detaining someone until he or she is willing to sign a confession or waiver of liability.

Punishment for Shoplifting

In some states, shoplifting is charged as a lesser form of larceny, often known as “petty theft.” Other states have enacted specific statutes to deal with shoplifting crimes. Your state’s approach will be set forth in the state or local penal code.  Typically, the exact punishment imposed will vary depending on the items the shoplifter attempted to steal. For instance, a perpetrator may only receive a fine for smaller thefts, but attempts to steal larger items could result in being charged with felony larceny and possible jail time.

Additionally, certain aggravating factors can increase the punishment that a defendant faces. If there is a history of shoplifting charges, the defendant may be punished more harshly. In California, for example, repeated convictions for shoplifting can lead to a felony charge, as opposed to a misdemeanor, and may result in jail time.