Shoplifting laws are complicated and can have serious collateral ramifications for the future of a person accused of this crime. Worse, thousands of innocent people are accused of this crime because of a bad combination of overeager store security and lazy police officers. Thus, it is imperative that you contact an New York City shoplifting crime lawyer immediately if you are arrested for any amount of shoplifting. The charges can be more serious than you think.
Shoplifting is a form of larceny and the degree of larceny that you are charged with has to do with the value of the property that you are accused of taking. While shoplifting may seem like a non-serious crime that is typically punished with a “slap on the wrist,” a person can take one designer bag that is valued at over $3,000 and if they get caught, they are looking at the very real possibility of not only being convicted of a felony, but of going to prison.
Despite these terrifying facts, the police and the District Attorney’s Offices routinely mischarge larceny crimes because they don’t accurately determine what the value of the stolen property actually is. Just because a certain department store says that a bag is worth $5,000 does not mean that the value of that bag is actually that.
A good criminal defense attorney can help you fight a shoplifting case even if you are guilty of shoplifting by holding the government to its burden in proving that the value is as high as they initially claim it is. This typically leads to a reduction in charges and may even lead to eventual dismissal.
Typically, when a person is charged with a crime that stems from a shoplifting arrest, the District Attorney's Office brings two, and sometimes three, different charges. There is almost always a larceny charge and a criminal possession of stolen property charge. The larceny charge is for the taking of the actual property with the intent to permanently deprive the store of it, while the possession of stolen property charge is for the possession of the property with the knowledge that it was recently stolen. The reason these charges are usually brought in conjunction is because it makes it slightly harder for the accused shoplifter to get off on a "technicality." The degree of larceny and criminal possession of stolen property both directly correspond to the value of the property taken.
In addition to these accusations, the District Attorney's Office may charge "Possession of Burglar's Tools." According to New York Penal Code Section 140.35, a person is guilty of this when he possesses any tool commonly used for burglary or larceny-related offenses under circumstances "evincing an intent" to use the tool in the burglary or larceny-related crime. An example here would be in a situation where a person is accused of shoplifting and when they are arrested, they are discovered to be in possession of a bag with aluminum siding- which is commonly used to stop store sensors from going off when the property still has store tags on them. In this situation, they'd be charged with larceny and possession of stolen property for the stealing of the property and Possession of Burglar's Tools for possessing this kind of a bag. Possession of Burglar's Tools is a class A misdemeanor which is punishable by up to one year in jail.
When a person is accused of shoplifting, there are two additional things that may happen to them before the police are ultimately called. First, the store often informs them that they are not allowed to ever come back into the store again and if they do, they will be trespassing. The person is then forced to sign an acknowledgement of this fact and a photo is typically taken of the person. If it is a chain, their privileges to enter any store within that chain is similarly revoked. The store has the legal right to do this and there is nothing anyone can be about that. The common effect of this though is that any time in the future when that person walks into the store, they can be arrested for trespassing. More importantly, however, if they walk into the store and try to steal something again and they are arrested, the District Attorney's Office now has the ability to charge the person with Burglary in the Third Degree, a felony punishable by up to 7 years in jail, because that can prove that the person entered the store unlawfully (because of the trespass notice) with the intent to commit a crime (because of the shoplift).
The second thing that typically happens is the store security may give what is called a "Civil Demand Letter" to the accused shoplifter. Pursuant to New York General Obligations Law, a store is entitled to recover damages from the person who stole from them. The idea here is that it helps them pay for shoplifting prevention. Pursuant to the law, the merchant is legally entitled to recover "the retail price of the merchandise if not recovered in merchantable condition up to an amount not to exceed fifteen hundred dollars; plus...a penalty not to exceed the greater of five time the retail price or $75; provided, however, that in no event shall such penalty exceed $500." The way this works is the merchant is allowed to sue the person in court for the amount they are owed pursuant to this statute (provided they can prove it). However, in lieu of doing that, often stores will demand that the person just pay the money at the store. They sometimes go so far as to use the credit cards of the accused shoplifter and they put charges on them. Many lawyers recommend that the accused shoplifter not let the store do this. The stores often take advantage of scared or embarrassed people and lie to them to get them to consent. They sometimes even make empty promises about not calling the police. The person then consents, the store takes the money, and the police are called anyway. The reason the store engages in these tactics is because its easier and cheaper for them to recover the money this way, then to sue in court. Most lawyers would recommend that if the store wants the money, they should use the legal system to recover it, not intimidation. After the store does this though, they typically call the police who then come and arrest the person. Then the person's arrest is processed.
John Buza is an experienced New York defense attorney and is a former Manhattan prosecutor. If you, or a loved one, has been charged with shoplifting or any other larceny-related crimes, do not hesitate to contact him for a free consultation.