Shoplifting, also known as retail theft, is a crime included under the general category of theft under Texas laws. Legally, theft is defined as the taking of property without the owner’s consent, with the intent to permanently deprive the rightful owner of possession.
Retail theft usually describes the crime of stealing merchandise from a business, and while it is considered a lesser theft offense it is still a serious charge that can have serious consequences. The penalties for shoplifting in Texas range from a misdemeanor charge to a third degree felony. The severity of the sentence is based on the total value of the items stolen.
If you’ve been accused of shoplifting or charged with retail theft, you probably have a lot of questions about what will happen to you and what steps you should take to protect yourself. Lisa Shapiro Strauss, Houston theft lawyer, explains the consequences of shoplifting.
What will happen to me if I’m convicted of shoplifting?
The sentencing guidelines for shoplifting in Texas are the same as other forms of theft. These penalties are described in Section 31.03 of the Texas Penal Code.
Misdemeanors are smaller scale crimes which usually carry sentences of fines or a short amount of jail time. The penalties for a misdemeanor shoplifting conviction fall under three categories:
Class C Misdemeanor: The least serious of theft charges, a conviction for theft of items valued at less than $50 carries a fine of up to $500.
Class B Misdemeanor: If you are convicted of stealing property valued at more than $50 but less than $500, the penalty may be jail time of up to 180 days and/or a fine of up to $2,000.
Class A Misdemeanor: This is the most serious of misdemeanor theft crimes, for theft of property of more than $500 but less than $1,500 in value. A conviction carries penalties of up to 1 year in county jail and a fine of up to $4,000.
As many of us know, felonies are more serious crimes and carry harsher sentences. Just like misdemeanor theft, the sentences for felony theft convictions are based on the total value of the property that was stolen.
State Jail Felony: While this is the least serious of felony theft charges, it is still a quite serious crime, which involves the theft of property valued at more than $1,500 but less than $20,000. If the value of property stolen was less than the minimum $1,500, it may still be tried as a state jail felony if the defendant has other convictions for misdemeanor shoplifting. Being convicted could mean a sentence of 180 days to 2 years in state jail and up to $10,000 in fines.
Third Degree Felony: This charge involves retail theft of items valued at more than $20,000 but less than $100,000. A conviction carries penalties of 2 to 10 years in state prison and fines up to $10,000.
Second Degree Felony: A charge of second-degree felony theft is reserved for the theft of items valued between $100,000 and $200,000. Conviction can result in imprisonment of between 2 and 20 years and fines of up to $10,000.
First Degree Felony: This is the most serious of felony theft charges, reserved for theft of property worth more than $200,000. It’s unlikely for a shoplifting charge to qualify as a first-degree felony; however, if it did, a conviction would carry a prison sentence of between 5 years and 99 years, and fines up to $10,000.
These are the penalties for theft in Texas, including shoplifting. However, if you are accused of working with a team in order to commit the shoplifting crime, you could be charged with organized retail theft.
This crime is defined under Section 31.16 of the Texas Penal Code. A person can be charged with organized retail theft if they intentionally conducted, promoted or facilitated an activity in which a person receives, possesses, conceals, stores, barters, sells or disposes of stolen retail merchandise of a total value not less than $1,500.
If you are found guilty of organizing, supervising or managing others in an organized theft ring, the crime can be increased to the next degree of theft. For example, if the amount stolen was between $2,000, it would typically fall under the category of a State Jail Felony. If the defendant is found guilty of organizing others in a retail theft scheme, the State Jail Felony charge could be increased to a third degree Felony.
Minors who are convicted of shoplifting are usually handled a bit differently by the legal system. For instance, if convicted of a Class B misdemeanor charge of shoplifting, a minor likely wouldn’t be sent to state jail but rather a detention center for youth offenders.
Juvenile offenders are also more likely to be sentenced to community service or required to attend a course about shoplifting crimes.
If you are found guilty of retail theft and are under the age of 18, you will still likely be ordered to pay a fine, just like an adult shoplifter would. It will also still be a conviction on your criminal record, something that can affect you in many areas of your life in the future.
Civil Claims for Retail Theft
In addition to criminal penalties, a shoplifting charge may also result in a civil lawsuit by the victim of the retail theft. Under the Texas Theft Liability Act, victims of theft are able to pursue damages related to the theft against the defendant.
In the case of retail theft, this means that a shop owner can file a lawsuit against a person convicted of shoplifting goods from his store. The lawsuit can seek compensation for the actual value of the property stolen, plus $1,000 in damages; if the convicted shoplifter is a minor, the store can sue the minor’s parents for the value of items stolen plus up to $5,000 in damages.
Life Impact of a Shoplifting Conviction
Convictions for any theft crime, including shoplifting, carry a social stigma that can be hard to overcome. In addition to the criminal and civil penalties, you may find yourself facing other consequences.
For example, employers are often reluctant to hire someone who has been convicted of theft crimes. These crimes are considered serious acts of dishonesty, also commonly called “crimes of moral turpitude.” Criminal records are checked by many employers, and a shoplifting conviction is easily found during such a background check. Lying on your employment application may get you the job, but doing so will only result in firing later when the dishonesty is discovered.
In addition to this, a shoplifting conviction can lead to a permanent ban from the store you committed the retail theft in. This can be embarrassing but also cause inconvenience. If the conviction is for shoplifting in a grocery store, for instance, and it is the only one nearby or the most convenient location, it can create problems on a day-to-day basis when it comes to getting the necessities.
How Can A Shoplifting Attorney Help?
Sadly, it’s not an uncommon belief that because the criminal penalties can be minor, shoplifting is not a serious crime that requires hiring a lawyer. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Not getting legal assistance can be a devastating mistake. Trusting your future to an inexperienced attorney, or an attorney who does not normally handle shoplifting cases, can be just as big of a mistake as having no legal help at all.
But why is it so important to have a retail theft attorney handle your case?
Defending YOUR Interests
We’ve all heard the saying, “The best defense is a good offense.” When it comes to defending against a criminal charge, this is absolutely true. You need a legal representative who will not just defend you, but actively investigate, develop a legal strategy that is customized to the facts of your case, and aggressively fight to get you the best possible outcome.
This representation can start the moment police officers want to question you about shoplifting. Your first and smartest move is to remain silent during any questioning and request to speak with an attorney.
Having a lawyer present while you are questioned is NOT an admission of guilt. It’s often the first instinct of a person accused of a crime to want to explain his side of the story to illustrate innocence. Unfortunately, law enforcement officials are trained in getting the most out of interrogations. They are skilled in getting you to say something you don’t really mean, or confessing to crimes you didn’t commit or intend to commit.
When you have an attorney with you while you are being questions, you can avoid incriminating yourself, even accidentally, and ensure that your constitutional rights are protected.
In the event that you are arrested and charges filed, your attorney will continue to pursue your interests. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Representing you in court hearings
- Reviewing the evidence
- Interviewing prosecution witnesses for weakness in their testimony
- Pursuing new leads and gathering new evidence in your favor
- Defending you at trial
- Advising you on plea bargains offered by the prosecution
This last topic is one that should be explained in more detail. Many people know the idea behind a “plea deal.” This is an offer by the prosecution to lessen the charge and/or the sentence if you agree to plead guilty.
It might sound like a great idea — a lesser penalty and you get to avoid a trial. Before signing on the dotted line, though, it’s important to understand the fine print.
A plea deal is not usually offered because the prosecution is feeling nice and believes you didn’t really mean to steal something. Most often, the deal is offered because the prosecutor isn’t confident in the evidence against you and can’t be sure you will be convicted by a jury if the case goes to trial.
If you do not have an attorney and attend a court hearing on your own, the prosecutor will take advantage of your lack of knowledge about the criminal justice system. Any deal he offers will likely not be in your best interest, knowing that you have no one there to advise you against taking it. However, if you attend court with a shoplifting lawyer who is knows the local court systems and understands the specifics of your case, then your attorney can help you decide if the deal is your best option.
Getting the best outcome in your shoplifting case
The best outcome in any case is having the charges dismissed or being found not guilty of the charges at trial. In some cases, though, these outcomes simply aren’t possible based on the facts of the case.
One option that should be explored is a pretrial diversion program. In Harris County, these programs may require a probationary period, paying restitution to the store owner, community service, and some type of counseling.
This is an ideal scenario if a complete dismissal isn’t likely. A trial is avoided, and you can request that the charge be taken off your record two years after successfully finishing the diversion program. This option is typically only available to first-time offenders who are charged with low-level crimes.
If this is not an option, the next best scenario may be a plea agreement. When a plea bargain is in your best interest, a criminal defense lawyer will negotiate the best deal possible. This can mean getting charged, fines or jail time reduced. The negotiation will be based on the circumstances of your case, the strength of the prosecution’s evidence, and other factors such as past criminal history.
Is shoplifting really that serious?
Retail theft, or shoplifting, is legally defined as the act of taking property belonging to a retail establishment with the intention of permanently depriving the owner of rightful possession of the property.
There are several key words in this definition that deserve more explanation.
Property: In regard to shoplifting, property means any item that a business has for sale, including clothing, electronics, food, drink, toys, personal hygiene products, accessories, etc.
Deprive: Depriving an owner of rightful possession in the case of retail theft means that you are keeping the rightful owner from his property. The “rightful owner” would be the store. You can deprive the owner of his property by taking it, with the intention of keeping it. You can also deprive the owner of his property by taking it and only giving it back in exchange for a reward. Depriving can also include taking the property and getting rid of it in a way that makes it unlikely the owner can get it back, such as throwing it into the ocean, into a garbage dump, or burying it in woods.
When most people think of shoplifting, they imagine someone stuffing a product like a DVD under clothing and intentionally walking out of the store with it. Yes, this is a form of shoplifting, but there are also other crimes considered part of retail theft.
Shoplifting can include the following:
- Eating at a restaurant and leaving without paying your bill (sometimes referred to as “Dine and Dash”).
- Eating food while you’re in the grocery store, then leaving without paying for it.
- Knowingly writing a bad check for goods.
- Taking a price tag with a lower amount and putting it on a higher priced item so you can pay less for it.
- Taking a higher priced item and putting in the box of a lower priced item.
- Putting on new clothes in a dressing room and leaving the store in them.
- Hiding stolen merchandise, even if you weren’t the one to shoplift it.
- Intentionally performing ANY act that causes a cashier to charge you less for merchandise than you should have paid.
Accidental Shoplifting & Other Defense Strategies
Accidental shoplifting occurs when a person leaves a store with merchandise that they haven’t paid for WITHOUT the intent of stealing it. A prime example of this: A parent is in the store with their small child. Without the parent realizing it, the child picks up a small toy and carries it out of the store. The parent had no intention of stealing the item, and the child is too young to understand the concept.
One of the key elements of a theft conviction is a prosecutor proving that you had the intention of stealing someone else’s property. This can be a key defense strategy when fighting this kind of charge.
Other defense strategies that may be considered include:
- Mistake of fact: An example would be demonstrating that, while the shop owner believes you stole his merchandise, no theft actually occurred.
- Age: Minors may not get a free pass because of their age, but their age, inexperience and lack of understanding of their behavior may get them a reduced sentence.
- Duress: If you were forced, through violence or the threat of violence, into shoplifting an item, a duress defense may be an option.
In order to prepare the best defense possible, it’s a defense attorney will first need to know the specifics of your legal situation.
What To Do If You’re Accused of Shoplifting
If store employees suspect a person of shoplifting, they are allowed to stop and detain the suspect if they have “probable cause.” This means that the suspect was seen taking merchandise, hiding merchandise, moving or changing merchandise, or failing to pay for an item before leaving the store.
We strongly recommend that you don’t try to run away or avoid the store employees if they are trying to detain you; this could result in extra charges. After detaining a suspect, the store can demand the item’s return, ban the suspect from the store, and file a report with law enforcement officials.
In the event that you are stopped by a store employee, including a security guard, it is extremely important to know that they are NOT bound by the same laws as police officers. The store does not have to tell you what your rights are. They do not have to tell the truth. In many cases, they’ll say whatever they can to get you to confess to a crime, even if you didn’t commit one.
If you are pressured into signing any statement, you have the right not to do it. If the store says they won’t call the police if you sign an admission of guilt, they are most likely lying. As soon as you confess, they’ll call the police and hand the confession over to the officer.
The most important thing to do if you have been detained for shoplifting is to remain calm and strongly consider not saying anything at all when questioned. What you say can be used against you later in court, so saying little or nothing is your best option for not giving the prosecution ammunition against you.
It is likely that the store employees will call the police, who will write you a ticket and let you know when your court date will be. Once you receive your citation, your immediate next step should be contacting lawyer.
Getting Help With Shoplifting Charges
Even a minor shoplifting charge can have a critical impact on your future if you are convicted. Having top notch legal advice and aggressive representation as soon as possible after receiving a shoplifting citation can make a big difference in how successful the outcome of your case is.
In more than 15 years as a shoplifting lawyer in Houston, Lisa Shapiro Strauss, Attorney at Law, has helped many men, women and youths accused of crimes in Harris County. As a former prosecutor, Strauss knows how to look at your case from the other side. This unique perspective allows her to evaluate cases and formulate the best defense strategies.
If you’ve been accused of shoplifting, contact Houston theft attorney Lisa Shapiro Strauss today.