Shoplifting is one of the most commonly charged offenses in California, with a huge range of possible penalties. I wrote the following legal guide to help answer some of the questions that I receive every day on the topic. This should not be considered a complete treatise on the subject and should not be cited to for academic purposes.
Shoplifting can be more complicated than it looks on the surface, just because of the above-mentioned range of possible punishments. The simple act of walking into a store and taking some goods without paying can be classified as an infraction, a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on a lot of circumstances.
Before the prosecutor will decide what, if anything, to file against a suspect, attorneys from the DA's office will take a number of facts into consideration -- What was the value of the thing taken? Was the property damaged in any way? Did the suspect use any force or the threat of force to take the property? What kind of criminal history does the suspect have? Did the suspect enter the store with the intent to commit theft or did the suspect decide to commit theft once he or she was already inside? Can it be proven that the theft was actually intentional or is there a chance that an innocent shopper simply forgot to pay for something? The answers to these questions will guide the prosecutors in deciding what types of criminal charges to file against a person suspected of shoplifting.
The Value of the Thing Taken
Typically, if the value of the property taken is less than $50, nothing is damaged, the store receives the property back, and the suspect has no criminal history, he or she will be facing only an infraction, similar to a speeding ticket. The defendant might be required to take some classes and to learn about how shoplifting affects merchants before the case will be reduced from a misdemeanor to an infraction. This will include some fines, but no probation and no jail time.
If the value of the thing taken is between $50-$950, the suspect will probably be charged with misdemeanor petty theft. If, however, the suspect has some history of theft, if force was involved in the crime, or if it appears that the suspect entered the store with the plan to commit a theft, he or she could be looking at more serious charges, described below.
Any theft of goods valued at more than $950 will probably be charged as felony grand theft. Also, some theft of various agricultural products valued at more than $250 can also be charged as felony grand theft.
Defendant's Criminal History
Usually, if someone has had a shoplifting conviction reduced to an infraction in the past few years, they are not eligible to take advantage of that opportunity again. They will be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony this time.
A suspect with a prior conviction for petty theft can also be charged with a felony if they are convicted of petty theft a second time. People don't always realize that stealing a candy bar can send them to state prison if they've been convicted of stealing candy bars in the past.
Does it Appear that the Suspect Entered the Store with the Intent to Commit Theft?
In California, commercial burglary is defined as entering a building (other than a home) with the intent to commit theft. This means that you are guilty of burglary the minute you step into the store if it can be proven that you were even thinking of stealing something. It is obviously difficult to prove a defendant's mental state, but the prosecutor will attempt to do so with circumstantial evidence (Did the suspect bring any money with her? Did she go straight for the thing she stole, then head straight for the door? Was she using a stolen credit card? etc.)
If it looks like you came there with the plan to steal, you can be charged with felony commercial burglary.
Did the Suspect Use Force or the Threat of Force?
In California, robbery is defined as theft + force (or the threat of force). If a Loss Prevention Officer (commonly called an "LP") blocks your escape path and you push him, that can transform a simple infraction into a serious felony.
Since shoplifting can carry such a huge range of possible penalties, you should immediately talk to a local attorney if you are arrested. Someone who is familiar with the local courts can get you the best possible outcome and, hopefully, can help you avoid serious jail time.