Theft in general is a property crime that involves the unlawful taking of another person’s property, with the intent to permanently deprive that person of their property. Theft is commonly used as a blanket term to refer to many different crimes, including retail theft.

While the exact definition of retail theft will vary depending on your state, it generally refers to a situation where a person unlawfully takes possession of, transfers or carries away any goods or merchandise offered for sale by a retail establishment. It can also involve other conduct besides the physical theft of property, including the following:

  • Switching an item’s label, tag or packaging so that the customer ends up paying less than the listed price for the item;
  • Consuming goods inside a store (such as food at a grocery store) and then leaving without paying for the items consumed; and
  • Manipulating receipts, gift certificates, coupons or other documents in order to compromise the price paid or received.

Is Retail Theft the Same as Shoplifting?

The terms retail theft and shoplifting are basically synonymous in many situations. Retail theft is sometimes referred to as shoplifting and is usually listed under state petty theft laws. However, in some jurisdictions, retail theft can cover a broader criminal charge than shoplifting. This is because shoplifting usually refers to customers of a retail establishment who steal merchandise, while retail theft can also include thefts that are committed by employees of the establishment.

For instance, most state retail theft laws would consider “under-ringing” to be criminal conduct under theft laws. Under-ringing occurs where a cashier or other employee manipulates the cash register or other sales device to reflect a value that is less than the full sales price for the item. This crime would be distinguished from simple shoplifting because an employee is carrying out the theft (sometimes in coordination with a customer).

Under-ringing may also include abuses of employee discount privileges or other employee benefits. Both the employee and the customer could face criminal charges if they are involved in under-ringing.

What Happens if I am Arrested for Retail Theft?

If you are arrested and charged with retail theft, your case will go to trial if you do not reach a plea agreement with the prosecutor. Before you reach the penalty stage, the prosecutor will have to prove that you committed retail theft at trial. 

While the particular elements will depend on your state’s laws and specific type of crime, generally to prove theft the prosecutor must show beyond a reasonable doubt that:

  • You took possession of merchandise that was meant for sale at a store;
  • You failed to pay for the merchandise or did not pay for the full retail value of the merchandise; and
  • You intended to deprive the store of the benefit of a full retail value sale.

As noted above, this crime also frequently includes actions such as under-ringing and consuming goods inside a store without paying for them.

If you are convicted of retail theft, you will be sentenced and face criminal penalties. Retail theft is typically punishable by a criminal fine and/or jail time. Penalties will vary depending on the severity of your actions, the value of the stolen merchandise, your criminal history, whether you are charged with a misdemeanor or felony offense and other relevant factors.

In most cases, a first time charge for retail theft will result in a criminal misdemeanor charge. Misdemeanor charges will result in minor legal penalties such as a criminal fine and/or a jail term of less than one year. However, a second or third-time retail theft offense can sometimes result in criminal felony charges in certain states. Felonies usually result in higher fines and a sentence of more than one year in a prison facility rather than in a jail facility.

Also, keep in mind that a first-time theft offense may be considered a felony charge in some states if the total amount of the merchandise stolen is higher than a certain amount set by your state’s laws (usually around $500). 

Theft of a firearm or an automobile will also generally result in felony charges, even if it is your first offense. Again, keep in mind that this will all be dependent on your state’s laws and outlook on these issues.

Are There any Defenses to Retail Theft?

If you are charged with retail theft, you might have some defenses available to you. Once again, which defenses are available will be determined by your state’s laws and the specific circumstances of your case.

Lack of criminal intent is probably the most common defense. For example, if someone accidentally pockets an item or holds onto an item while intending to return the property, this may serve as a defense to retail theft. 

On the other hand, the intent to steal merchandise can sometimes be proven by the person’s actions after they took the item. For example, if a customer runs out of the store after putting an item in their purse, it may illustrate that they acted with criminal intent to steal the item.

Some other potential defenses include:

  • Intoxication;
  • Insanity;
  • Mistake of fact;
  • Mistake of law;
  • Mistaken identity; and/or
  • Consent or authority to possess the item.

Regardless, be aware that ignorance of criminal laws is never an excuse or defense for retail theft charges.

Do I Need to Hire an Attorney for Retail Theft Charges?

Retail theft crimes vary by state and hold different penalties depending on the circumstances surrounding your charges. Hiring a criminal defense attorney can help you with the success of your case. You may have a public defender appointed to you as well.

An attorney can assist you with evaluating the strength of the prosecutor’s case and determine how to proceed with defending against the charges. This could include asserting a defense, negotiating a plea agreement and representing your interests at trial.