“Shoplifting” goes by many names. Depending on the laws in your state, it may be called “petty theft” or “petty larceny,” “fourth degree” theft, or maybe even “shoplifting.” Practically everyone’s heard the term and knows pretty much what it means. Most people may not realize, however, just how serious the crime is.

Whether you’re an adult or a teenager (or juvenile), a shoplifting conviction can be a big deal.

Specifics of the Crime

Theft or larceny, in general, is when someone takes something of value from another person without permission and with the intent to keep it for himself. The thing taken can be just about anything, so long as it has value. Money and personal property, like clothes and jewelry, are good examples.

The Item’s Value is the Key

What makes the crime “petty” is the low value of the property taken. This is where the laws of each state usually vary a great deal. For example, in some states petty theft may be when the value of the thing stolen has a value of $50 or less. In other states, the value may be as high as $500.

When the stolen item has a higher value (more than $50 or $500), the crime is no longer petty. Rather, in most states, the crime becomes “grand” theft or larceny, which means stiffer punishments.

Examples of the Crime

The classic example of shoplifting or petty theft is when someone takes something from a store without paying for it. Putting a music CD or movie DVD in your coat pocket and leaving the store are good examples. There are others examples may not have thought about:

  • Switching price tags on merchandise so you pay less for the item you want
  • Putting a higher priced product into the box of lower priced item
  • Putting on new clothes or shoes in a dressing room and leaving the store
  • Eating at a restaurant and leaving without paying the bill
  • Eating food inside a store and not paying for it when you checkout

Short-Term Consequences: Punishments

In most instances, shoplifting or petty theft is a misdemeanor, or a low-level offense. The punishment or sentence for misdemeanors is usually a fine, a few days in jail or both. For example, a typical law may state that “anyone convicted of petty theft shall be fined no more than $500, incarcerated for no more than 30 days, or both.”

It’s usually up to the judge to decide if which sentence you’ll get. He’ll consider things like the value of the property and whether it’s your first offense. Someone whose first offense is stealing $100 worth of merchandise from a store will likely get a lighter sentence than someone who steals the same merchandise but has a prior theft conviction, for instance.

Also, the defendant will usually be ordered to give back what he took, or its value, if he doesn’t have it any more. This is called restitution.

Different Rules for Juveniles

The rules are a bit different for juveniles – usually those who are under 18 years old. There’s still a conviction on their records (it’s usually called an adjudication of delinquency). And, while the crime is still a misdemeanor, the sentencing possibilities are different. For example, rather than being sent to the county jail with adult offenders, a juvenile may be sent to a detention center where other young offenders are held.

Also, it’s likely a juvenile will be required to work community service – like pick-up trash along a highway – or attend a special course about shoplifting and crimes in general. In most cases, though, the juvenile will be ordered to make restitution and pay fine, just like an adult.

Next, Long-Term Consequences

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