Shoplifting Penalties Rarely Benefit Retailers These Days

Retail shoplifting penalties are undergoing changes. They aren't all good.

shoplifting penalties

Most readers of the LPM Insider are pretty familiar with shoplifting, its definition, its negative impact on retail operations and profitability and the shoplifting penalties for their state. It would be a lengthy process to learn the laws of every state and their shoplifting penalties because of the vast differences and constant change. Shoplifting laws have changed significantly in recent years—but rarely to the benefit of the retail industry.

Shoplifting and petty theft are criminal offenses that are frequently thought of as interchangeable, as they share common elements. Each crime requires the perpetrator to take something valued at or below a certain dollar amount, with the intent to permanently keep it, usually constituting a misdemeanor crime.

The taking of something valued over that predetermined amount (as described by law) constitutes grand theft, which is a felony.

State laws vary on the cutoff between petty theft and grand theft, and the shoplifting penalties assigned to those crimes vary by the amount stolen and by state. But, in general, to qualify for petty or grand theft, certain criteria must apply:

  • The victim of the crime had a “possessory interest” in the stolen item
  • The property was “taken away”
  • The victim did not agree to the taking
  • The defendant intended to permanently deprive the victim of their interest in the property

In the “old days,” nearly all shoplifters who were apprehended by store loss prevention personnel were transported to the police station—and maybe even to jail–by the authorities. Even juveniles were transported, although they were usually turned over to the custody of their parents.

Today’s practices are often much different. Various factors, including tight budgets, increases in serious crime, and shrinking availability of patrols have affected police procedures and shoplifting penalties. It is now much more difficult for officers to transport shoplifters, particularly for petty theft offenses.

In today’s world, if they show up at all, police will often only issue a citation to the offender that may include a fine and possibly a “notice to appear” in court. As early as 1980, the Los Angeles Police Department quit responding for minor shoplifting incidents.

Since 2001, 35 states have raised felony theft thresholds – the value of stolen goods above which prosecutors may charge the offense as a felony. Critics have warned that higher felony cutoffs will embolden thieves and cause property crimes, including shoplifting, to rise. However, in spite of critic’s warnings and common-sense conclusions, studies show that increased felony thresholds have not, in fact, negatively affected theft rates.

A study by Pew Charitable Trusts compared crime trends in 28 states that raised felony theft thresholds over a ten-year period. Three important conclusions resulted from that study:

  • Raising felony theft thresholds had no impact on overall property crime or larceny rates
  • States that increased their thresholds reported roughly the same average decrease in crime as the states that did not change their theft laws
  • The amount of a state’s felony theft threshold- whether $500, $1,000, $2,000 or more – is not connected with its property crime and larceny rates

Despite calming statistics, changes in shoplifting penalties still make it tough for retailers. In late 2014, California passed Proposition 47, which has been described as “the decriminalization of shoplifting.” To qualify for felony prosecution for property theft in California now, the amount stolen must exceed a $950 value. Since the passing of Proposition 47, editorials have featured headlines such as “It’s pretty much open season—shoplifters run rampant after rule changes,” and “California decriminalizes shoplifting—shoplifting doubles.”

To make matters worse, California is one of approximately fifteen states without formal organized retail crime (ORC) laws. In 2015, the National Retail Federation (NRF) noted that Los Angeles had the worst ORC activity of all major US cities.

But it is not only California. In Indiana, during a hectic law-making session, legislators “forgot” to include language that would allow the police to arrest suspected shoplifters apprehended by store personnel for stealing something less than $750. The language was subsequently fixed, but the incident is only one representation of what retailers are facing in the fight against shoplifting.

The future does not appear to be getting any brighter for shoplifting penalties and laws any time soon. When waging this uphill battle regarding shoplifting, retailers need to remain vigilant and continue to make their voices heard through their legislators and through organizations such as the NRF and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA).

This post was originally published in 2017 and was updated August 22, 2017.

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