Is Shoplifting a Felony?

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 What is Shoplifting?

Shoplifting is a criminal act that occurs when a person intentionally carries away or takes possession of merchandise, equipment, and/or retail goods offered for sale by a retail establishment without paying for those items. The individual must have also intended to permanently deprive the business of its goods or merchandise. In most instances, the crime of shoplifting is usually carried out by a customer or a shopper, as opposed to a retail worker.

For example, the crime of shoplifting typically involves pocketing retail goods from a store, such as a pack of gum or an article of clothing, and then leaving the store without paying for those items. This conduct is more likely to occur when it is done by a shopper, not an employee.

In fact, one of the main elements that distinguishes shoplifting charges from those of retail theft is that shoplifting is only intended to cover customers who steal goods from a retail establishment.

Generally speaking, many shoplifters tend to focus on taking smaller and more expensive goods that can easily fit into their purse or a pants’ pocket. Although virtually any store item may be earmarked in a shoplifting incident, there are certain goods that are frequently targeted more than others.

Some examples of store goods that are commonly taken by shoplifters may include:

  • Baby products;
  • Clothing;
  • Prescription and over the counter medications;
  • Food items (specifically meats);
  • Alcoholic beverages;
  • Cosmetics; and/or
  • Electronics (e.g., laptops, smartphones, tablets, etc.).

Additionally, some shoplifting incidents may involve various parties. For instance, one person may serve as a distraction to other shoppers and retail employees, while another person carries out the act of shoplifting. Regardless of whether it is one or several parties that are participating in a shoplifting effort, the crime may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony offense depending on the circumstances.

Finally, the exact definition for the crime of shoplifting will normally vary by jurisdiction. This means that each state has adopted its own criminal statute that prescribes different criminal consequences for persons who are convicted on shoplifting charges. State law will also dictate whether a shoplifter should be charged with committing a felony theft or petty larceny, which is considered a misdemeanor crime in most states.

To learn more about shoplifting charges in your state, you should contact a local criminal defense attorney for further legal advice. It may also be in your best interest to consult with an attorney if you are facing charges for felony shoplifting since a conviction can result in a lengthy prison sentence.

When Can I Be Charged with Felony Shoplifting?

As discussed above, state law will typically dictate whether a shoplifting incident constitutes a felony crime. The majority of states distinguish between felony and misdemeanor charges for shoplifting in accordance with the value of goods or merchandise stolen. In most instances, a state shoplifting statute will prescribe the minimum amount of merchandise that must be stolen before the act will qualify as a felony offense.

Again, while each state is free to set its own minimum value standard, the general rule of thumb that many states adhere to is that a shoplifting event will convert from a misdemeanor into a felony offense when the value of the property stolen is equal to or more than $500.

However, some states do not consider shoplifting a felony offense until the value of the property stolen is equal to or more than $1,000. Thus, it is important to pay attention to state-specific statutes.

For example, a person who is charged with taking $100 worth of merchandise from a retailer without consent will likely face charges for petty larceny (i.e., misdemeanor shoplifting) in the state of New York. On the other hand, if the value of stolen goods exceeds $1,000, then a shoplifter can be charged with committing grand larceny (i.e., felony shoplifting) under New York State law.

A person will also likely be charged with felony shoplifting in any state if they are considered a repeat offender. Briefly, a repeat offender is someone who has been convicted of committing a particular crime on more than one occasion. Therefore, even if a person stole less than the state minimum, they may still be charged with felony shoplifting if they were convicted of this crime at least one or more times in the past.

Does a Shoplifting Felony Depend on What Merchandise Was Taken?

There are certain retail goods that can result in automatic felony charges against a person who shoplifts them. With these particular retail goods and/or merchandise, the total value of stolen goods will not make a difference in whether a person is charged with a felony or misdemeanor. All that matters in such a case is that the person stole this specific type of item.

For example, the overall cost of the goods will not affect the level of the charges brought against a person when any of the following items are involved in the act of shoplifting:

  • Incendiary devices (e.g., grenades, shells, rockets, etc.);
  • Firearms or other weapons, such as pistols or rifles; and/or
  • Explosives like dynamite.

Thus, even if a person shoplifts a firearm that costs less than $500, they may still be charged with the crime of felony shoplifting. As previously mentioned, the legal consequences that a person can face if they are convicted of committing felony shoplifting will be more severe if they are considered a repeat offender. This is especially true if they had previous felonies on their criminal record that precluded them from possessing firearms and other weapons.

In addition, taking any explosives, devices, or materials that can be used to create explosives and incendiary devices may constitute a federal offense. For reference, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (“ATF”) monitors the sale, transport, possession, and theft of stolen goods and/or equipment that can be used to make bombs.

This can include a wide range of objects, starting with the more obvious items like plastic explosives, and ending with items that may be less obvious like fertilizer, which contains ammonium nitrate and is often used in bombs.

Stealing any goods or equipment that are regularly monitored by the ATF can cause the lesser crime of misdemeanor shoplifting to convert into a serious federal felony offense, such as domestic terrorism or an attempt to commit an act of domestic terrorism.

What is the Difference between a Misdemeanor Charge and Felony Charge?

For the most part, misdemeanor charges are typically seen as being less serious than their felony counterparts. The primary difference between the two concerns the extent of criminal penalties that one can receive for a conviction.

For instance, the penalties for committing a misdemeanor offense usually require having to pay criminal fines and/or having to serve a jail sentence of one year or less. The amount of fines that a defendant may have to pay in such a scenario will ordinarily depend on the value of the stolen property.

On the other hand, the penalties that are commonly associated with felony offenses often involve prison sentences for one year or longer and/or criminal fines that can amount to thousands of dollars. As such, the criminal penalties that one can receive after being convicted on charges for felony shoplifting may include a term of imprisonment and thousands of dollars in criminal fines.

In addition, certain crimes may be charged as “wobbler” offenses. A wobbler offense is one that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony offense. Whether a wobbler crime is charged as a felony or as a misdemeanor offense will depend on the facts of a case as well as state laws. A judge will also be afforded discretion to determine which level of charge should apply to a criminal defendant.

Finally, one other detail to keep in mind about shoplifting charges is that some states classify the crime of felony shoplifting by different degrees or categories. The degree or category that is assigned to a felony shoplifting crime will be contingent on the nature of the offense. Such degrees for felony offenses will typically range between one and five, with five reserved for the most serious of felony offenses.

Should I Contact an Attorney about My Shoplifting Charge?

As previously discussed, the laws on shoplifting crimes can vary widely by state and often result in various criminal penalties that depend on both the circumstances surrounding a specific case and the laws of a particular jurisdiction. Thus, in order to increase your chances of either having your shoplifting charges dropped or receiving a reduced criminal sentence, it may be in your best interest to hire a local criminal attorney for further legal assistance.

An experienced criminal attorney will be able to assess the strength of the prosecutor’s evidence and can provide legal advice on how to proceed with your case based on their analysis. Your attorney will also be able to explain the risks and benefits of accepting a plea deal, as opposed to going to trial.

Should you decide to reject your plea deal and move forward with a criminal trial, your attorney can assist you in preparing a strong defensive argument and can provide legal representation in criminal court. Alternatively, if you decide to take the plea deal that the prosecution offered to you instead, your attorney can also represent you at those discussions wherein they may negotiate for a better or fairer plea agreement on your behalf.


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