Criminal Law

Shoplifting or "Petty" Theft: What's the Big Deal?

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"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.

Long-Term Consequences

A conviction for shoplifting is just like any other criminal conviction: You'll have a criminal record that may follow you for the rest of your life. When you apply for a job, the employer will see the conviction when it does a criminal background check. This may make it harder for you to find a job. Also, if you apply for college or even a professional license - like a license to practice law or medicine - that conviction will be discovered and you may not get the license.

And if you commit another shoplifting crime? In some states, a second conviction for petty theft or shoplifting will result in a felony conviction. Felonies carry with them much harsher sentences: Higher fines and almost certain jail time, perhaps one year or more.

Sealing and Expunging Criminal Records

As a general rule, criminal court records are public, meaning anyone can go to the courthouse and find out if someone's ever been arrested for, charged with or convicted of a crime. In some states, though, there are ways to hide or even destroy a criminal record, so that almost no one can find out about a conviction.

The terms sealing and expunging are often used interchangeably when it comes to criminal records, but there are some differences.

  • Sealing a criminal record (it's usually called a "juvenile record" for people under 18) is when a court file is hidden from the general public
  • Expunging a criminal record means the record is completely destroyed; it's as if the crime never happened

In essence, they're the same thing: There are very limited circumstances when a sealed record may be looked at or when a your may be required to tell someone you had a prior conviction expunged.

State Laws are Different

The states have very different laws about sealing and expunging records. Some states don't allow any records to be sealed or expunged. Some allow one or both, but they don't allow either one for some crimes, like murder, kidnapping and sex-related crimes. Nonetheless, here are some general rules:

  • In many states, juvenile records are sealed automatically by the courts to protect the juvenile's privacy. In some states, a juvenile must ask the court to seal his record, and he must wait a period of time, usually a few years, before he may make the request. And, the request won't be granted if he was convicted of another crime
  • In almost all states, adult criminal records are never sealed automatically. However, in many states, an adult may ask that a record be sealed or expunged after waiting several years, usually 10, and the request won't be granted if he's been convicted of another crime
  • Sealing and expungement is usually granted only for first-time, misdemeanor offenses - like many petty theft or shoplifting offenses
  • Convictions that have been expunged won't show up on a criminal background check by employers and schools, for example. However, you may have to disclose an expunged conviction in some circumstances, such as when you apply for certain professional licenses or apply for job that involves working with children
  • A court may consider an expunged conviction if you've been convicted of another crime. So, the expunged conviction may have the affect of "prior conviction," which may lead to a harsher sentence on the second conviction

It's Not Worth It

That video game console or gold bracelet isn't worth the gamble. No matter your age, a "no big deal" conviction for shoplifting likely will bring you trouble for many years. The best advice, of course, is this: Don't take it.

Talk to an experienced attorney immediately if you've been accused or arrested for shoplifting. It may be possible to have the charge reduced to an "infraction," where all you'll have to pay is a fine, with no criminal record to worry about, especially if it's your first offense.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I was convicted of shoplifting when I was 15 years old, and I haven't been in trouble since then. I'm starting to get college applications together, and I'm wondering if the colleges will see that conviction when I apply. Should I tell them about it up front? Can I get the conviction expunged?
  • My son stole a $30 music CD from a store. Can he really be fined hundreds of dollars and be sent to juvenile detention over $30?
  • I was shopping with my 2 year old son and had my hands full. I threw a movie DVD into my cart, but I didn't see that it actually landed in my open purse. Store security guards stopped me in the parking lot, but they didn't believe it was an honest mistake. I'm being charged with shoplifting. Can you help me?
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