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Must you be caught with stolen goods to be charged with shoplifting?

On Behalf of | Jan 11, 2024 | Criminal Defense

If you’re caught walking out of a store with stolen goods, you should not be surprised if the police charge you. Yet many people are accused of shoplifting without leaving a store or after leaving without any stolen goods on them.

California law defines shoplifting as “entering a commercial establishment with intent to commit (larceny or burglary) while that establishment is open during regular business hours.” If the goods someone intends to steal are worth less than $950, it’s larceny. If they are worth $950 or more, it’s burglary, which risks more severe consequences.

How can store staff tell if you intend to steal something?

The retail industry loses billions to shoplifters, so, unsurprisingly, staff can be overly suspicious of customers and accuse people of wrongdoing who had no intention of stealing anything. Police and store staff can accuse you of intending to steal based on observation, either directly or via security cameras.

Shoplifters often work in teams, with some members preparing the goods and distracting staff while another walks out of the store with them. Several things might trigger suspicion that you are part of a team. These include:

  • Entering the store in a group
  • Walking with an unnatural gait
  • Carrying oversized bags or wearing oversized clothing
  • Appearing to be watching the staff
  • Picking up items and putting them down in the wrong place
  • Doing something distracting

All those things could have perfectly legitimate explanations. Perhaps you have large bags because you have a lot of shopping to do. Maybe you walk with an unnatural gait due to a disability, and so on.  But staff and the police officers that staff members call may not give you the benefit of the doubt.

If you are falsely accused of shoplifting, you could still be charged even though you did not actually steal anything. All the prosecution has to prove is that you intended to. To better safeguard your rights, getting legal help to show you had no such intention should be a priority.