One of the most common crimes that falls in the category of theft or larceny, which is unlawfully taking someone else’s property, is shoplifting. Shoplifting is the act of stealing merchandise that is offered for sale by a retailer. While statutes regarding shoplifting vary greatly from one jurisdiction to the next, there are generally two elements of shoplifting:
- Willfully taking or concealing merchandise that has not been purchased and
- Intending to convert the merchandise to the perpetrator’s personal use without paying the purchase price.
Any act of covering an object to keep it out of sight of the merchant or otherwise hiding the object constitutes the concealment element of shoplifting. Intent can be construed through circumstantial evidence, such as the shoplifter’s demeanor in the store or lack of money to pay for the item.
Shoplifting losses amount to billions of dollars every year, which are then passed on to consumers through higher costs. Most states have now enacted civil demand statutes or civil recovery statutes to help businesses recoup shoplifting losses. Criminal prosecution of the shoplifter is not required for the merchant to file a civil demand request. Generally, an attorney of a victimized business will send a letter to the perpetrator demanding compensation. If he does not respond to the letter then the business owner may seek civil damages in small claims court or other forum.
Merchants also have rules and laws to be mindful of in shoplifting and civil demand situations. If a merchant accuses someone of shoplifting and he is acquitted then that person can make civil claims against the store for negligence or inflicting emotional distress. A merchant can even face charges of false imprisonment if he wrongfully detains a suspected shoplifter. A merchant can also face criminal prosecution if he threatens to prosecute the shoplifter if a civil demand is not paid.
Shoplifting is usually easy to prosecute because there is often video surveillance evidence as well as witnesses, including security personnel, other store employees and other customers. Depending on the value of the merchandise, shoplifting can be prosecuted as either petty theft or petty larceny, which are misdemeanors, or as felony grand theft.
First-time shoplifting offenders may be able to avoid a criminal record by making restitution to the store and completing a diversionary program. A good criminal defense attorney can help people keep their criminal record clean.