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I Stole a Couple Things From the Mall. Am I Going to Be Arrested and Charged With a Crime?

Hypothetically, you enter a store, steal a few items, and you exit the store without being caught. Can you still be arrested for shoplifting afterward? The quick answer is, yes. Before approaching a shoplifter, many establishments will wait until they have exited the front door(s). This demonstrates to employees that the shoplifter had the intention to steal and carried it out. This would not be theft if someone took an item and hid it, but then paid for it before leaving the store. Rather, this would be a dubious shopping habit frowned upon by business owners.

Another scenario is when a thief conceals a product with the goal of stealing it, but then loses confidence and returns the item before leaving the store. Although they may have intended to steal, they did not really steal. When approaching a suspected shoplifter, employees must exercise extreme caution because falsely accusing someone of a crime can result in an embarrassing meeting for both the employee and the individual.

When checking out at a store, double-check the cart inside and out to ensure that all items have been placed on the counter for purchase. Even if you make an honest mistake and offer to pay for the item in the bottom of the cart, many establishments will pursue you for theft.

You can be arrested even if you successfully shoplift and leave the store without being caught. Businesses may analyze surveillance footage if there is missing inventory or if anything distinctive has vanished from the shelves. When they uncover the video recording that shows when the theft occurred, they will report it to the authorities. Then, the police may develop still images from the video and send out a mass announcement asking for help and “do you recognize this person?” Once sufficient evidence has been collected, police can take action.

Shoplifting is typically a crime punishable by misdemeanor probation, up to six months in county jail, and/or a $1,000 fine. If you have a prior conviction for anything that requires you to register as a sex offender; any felony punishable by life in prison or death; murder, attempted murder, or solicitation of murder; gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated; assault with a machine gun on a peace officer or firefighter; or possession of a weapon of mass destruction— you can be charged with felony shoplifting, which is punishable by formal probation for up to three years.

California law defines petty theft as the theft of any property with a value of $950 or less. Most petty thefts are charged as misdemeanors, which carry a sentence of up to six months in county jail, a fine of no more than $1,000, or both. However, if the property has a value of $50 or less, the prosecutor can charge the offense as an infraction, so long as the offender has had no other theft-related conviction. Petty theft charged as an infraction is punishable by a fine of no more than $250. (Cal. Penal Code § 490 (2020).)

Grand theft includes theft of property with a value of more than $950 or theft of a firearm (any value). The penalty for stealing a firearm is a felony, punishable by a state prison term of 16 months, two years, or three years. In all other cases, grand theft is a wobbler and can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. A misdemeanor sentence results in up to one year in jail and a felony sentence results in prison time of 16 months, two years, or three years. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 487, 490.2 (2020).)

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