In the city of San Jose, just like any other city in the country, residents often face challenges relating to theft. The rise of living standards and unpredictability of the economy has forced many into a life of crime, with shoplifting ranked as one of the most common crimes committed daily. These reasons are, of course, not an excuse to condone the crime of shoplifting. The California Criminal Lawyer Group is made up of excellent criminal defense attorneys. We are open to help our clients with any issues relating to the crime, some of which are discussed below.
Definition of Shoplifting Under California Statute
The law has made clear what exactly is to be termed as shoplifting under the California Penal Code, which applies in San Jose. Section 459.5 of the Penal Code defines the offense as the act of entering any commercial establishment, with an intent to commit the crime of theft on personal property. The offense occurs when the establishment is running or operating during regular business hours. The value of the stolen goods should not exceed $950. If circumstances surrounding a case of theft fit into the provisions under a statute, then the crime falls under the definition of shoplifting.
Elements of Shoplifting as a Crime
In a court of law, it is essential to show that the requisite Actus Reus and Mens Rea is established. The element of the Actus Reus deals with the actual physical act or omission that amounts to a crime. The Mens Rea relates to the criminal intent of an offender established before or during the commission of a crime.
First, in the case of shoplifting, the Actus Reus will be established by the action of entering the commercial establishment in question and stealing items or merchandise.
It is crucial to establish what may be considered a commercial establishment. This is in avoidance of doubt, which is the only way through which a case can be established in a criminal court. Section 17.84.104 of the San Jose Code of Ordinance defines a commercial/industrial building as a nonresidential construction, which includes the construction of retail space, office space, and other commercial uses regardless of any kind of zoning schemes. Thus, it can be established that any other premises or buildings in which theft by shoplifting may occur could give rise to a different criminal offense altogether. An example is in housebreaking, where a vendor may use a shop as a sleeping area as well. Since he uses the premise as a dwelling, an added element of housebreaking becomes considerable in court.
Regarding the act of stealing, there are also some elements to be satisfied. Firstly, the item being stolen needs to be moved from one point to another, no matter how small the distance. Stealing cannot be said to take place if an item remains at its original position. The offender may merely be charged with attempted theft in that scenario. Moving an item shows that a suspect has the intention to permanently deprive the rightful owner of possession, which is why it is such an essential element in proving theft.
Second, the Mens Rea element is required in proving a shoplifting case. Intent does not necessarily need to be premeditated by an offender. However, it must be formed sometime before or during the actual commission of a crime. The intent is proved by the analysis of the circumstances surrounding the case. The motive of shoplifting is also crucial in establishing a shoplifter’s intent, though it is not admissible in court as evidence. In shoplifting, the offender must have an intention to steal goods, which he or she may estimate to be $950 or less. That specific value is the threshold for shoplifting to be established, and merchandise that was stolen whose value is below this creates an offense of petty theft.
The timeline in which shoplifting occurs is during regular business operation hours. In the evolving economic world, commercial businesses can now operate for up to 24 hours. There is, therefore, no distinct definition as to what amounts to regular business hours. The optimization of time means that a person can be proved to have shoplifted at any time when the business was in operation. However, crimes of shoplifting committed at night can easily morph into more serious crimes like robbery with violence, especially where a shoplifter is in the company of another and is in possession of a weapon.
Penalties for Shoplifting
The crime of shoplifting does not usually bring about harsh consequences in regards to the tarnishing of a criminal record. Despite this, the law is keen on providing punishment for the offense, since it is a crime after all. The Penal Code has explicit provisions for specific categories and degrees of the offense of shoplifting and their penalties.
Firstly, the Penal Code distinguishes between petty theft and grand theft. Section 488 defines petty theft as any theft where goods which were stolen are valued at less than $950. On the other hand, grand theft is established to amount to theft of goods worth more than $950, under sections 404 and 487. The penalties are easily identified, having distinguished the two offenses. Petty theft will attract a misdemeanor charge, while grand theft may attract a felony or a misdemeanor as well. The charges are at the court’s discretion, depending on the evidence brought forward, and the leading circumstances of the events in the case.
A first-time shoplifting conviction warrants a fine of up to $1,000 or six-month imprisonment. In some cases, the judge may decide to issue both punishments co-currently, based on the severity of the case. The provisions for these penalties are under section 490 of the Penal Code.
In a case where an offender steals goods whose value does not exceed $50, he or she is charged with a misdemeanor. Section 490.1, where this provision of law is made, further gives lenient penalties for first-time offenders. They may be given a charge of an infraction, which is a minor offense that does not lead to probation, serving time in jail, or tarnishing of a criminal record. The payment of a fine is enough to discharge the offender of any further criminal liability in the event that he is granted an infraction.
For an adult or an unsupervised minor found guilty of a shoplifting offense, they will be required to pay damages of up to $500. Section 490.5(c) of the penal code avails these penalties. In addition to the payment of the fee, liability for payment of damaged goods is placed on the offenders. The reason why the law places unattended minors in the same category as adults is that there is no supervising adult to be held liable for the actions of the minor. It is meant to deter juveniles from engaging in the crime in the first place, because of the harsh and expensive penalties. The provisions under this section, therefore, purpose to reduce cases of minors involved in theft, specifically shoplifting.
Penalties for Unemancipated Minors
Section 490.5 (b) deals with penalties for minors who shoplift. There is a presumption of the fact that the minor is still under the care and guidance of a parent or guardian, as is therefore termed an unemancipated minor. In this case, a court cannot hold the child responsible. Instead, any liability falls on the parent or guardian for any damages caused that amount to $500 or less. In addition, it is their responsibility to cover for any damaged goods retrieved from the minor when he or she acquired them through shoplifting.
Moreover, if the aggrieved person can sue the adult responsible for the minor if the injury the minor cause is to the custodian of a store or any other commercial establishment. This is based on a general social presumption that the adult has a legal duty to deter the minor from criminal behavior. Any act by the minor contrary to required lawful conduct will hold the adult liable.
Penalties for Offenders with Previous Criminal Records
If a court establishes that a suspect charged with shoplifting holds a previous criminal record, it is highly likely that penalties will be more severe in nature. The prior convictions should be of serious crimes that include murder, manslaughter, or rape. If it is proved that the records are accurate, a shoplifting suspect may be charged with a felony, or be given a strict period of probation. The offender may also be liable for the payment of a fine of up to $10,000. The mode of punishment is punitive so that the offender can deter from recurrent criminal practices.
Merchant’s Privilege in Detaining a Shoplifter
Sections 490.5(f)(1) and (2) of the penal code give merchants in commercial establishments where shoplifting occurs special powers to detain the suspect. They hold the suspect while they await the arrival of designated officers in the store where the crime is committed. The straightforward reason for the law allowing this to happen is to prevent the chances of a suspect escaping.
Escape may be effortless during the time lapse between merchants sending an alert to the police, and the officers arriving at the scene of the crime. The merchant is also allowed to use any non-deadly force on the suspect, to detain him at the crime scene. Some suspects may be challenging to contain, as they are violent and may even attack the merchant with the intent to force escape. However, any excessive force used that may lead to death or grievous harm of the suspect will hold the detainer criminally liable, as the Penal Code exclusively states what kind of force is to be applied.
What Does the Prosecution Need to Prove?
Criminal proceedings rely on the principle of proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt, to allow the fair and justifiable conviction of an offender. The prosecution, therefore, carries the burden of proving particular elements in a court that establish the offense of shoplifting.
The first and most crucial element to be proven is that the suspect had an express intent to steal. That is to say that he or she had an intention to permanently deprive the rightful owner of the stolen items a legitimate claim of ownership. The prosecution relies upon the facts surrounding the crime, such as hiding the stolen goods in discreet places or moving stealthily, to prove the presence of intent. Without any evidence of the criminal intent, the case cannot continue.
The prosecution must also prove that the shoplifter took property belonging to someone else. The element to be determined is that the offender has no documents such as receipts of purchase to show that he or she lawfully bought the stolen item. It is often easy to prove the absence of a claim of ownership with the help of technology. In most, if not all, stores, there are CCTV cameras that record and store footage of any occurrences in and out of the stores. Lack of these cameras does not mean that the prosecution cannot prove the claim, as the suspect has the responsibility of showing all appropriate documentation of ownership. The prosecution can, therefore, be tasked with disproving the offender’s evidence.
The prosecution in court should also prove the lack of consent. This mostly requires the merchant or any other employee on duty during the commission of the crime to testify to the events that ensued. Their testimony is whether or not the suspect used any coercion or force to escape with shoplifted items. The value of goods can also be verified by the shop owner during his testimony in court. A statement of the price is essential to determine the level of punishment that an offender will receive.
It is important to remember that in criminal proceedings, a judge’s decision should be made based on the strength of the prosecutor’s evidence, and not on the weakness of the accused’s defense.
Possible Defenses for Shoplifting Charges
In any type of court proceedings, the defendant always has possible defenses that may work towards his or her acquittal. Despite the availability of these defenses, certain limiting factors exist that may dispel the defense altogether. Some arguments may only act as mitigating statements that do not absolve the offender of his or her criminal liability. With the help of your lawyer, you can rely on the most robust defenses available to you, and try to refute the prosecution's claims.
The defense of the absence of Mens Rea can be used in shoplifting proceedings. It can be used by the accused person to show that he or she did not intend to steal, but instead had other goals for the act done in wrongfully picking goods. Despite the credibility of the defense, it is most suitable in instances where the crime of shoplifting was inchoate. The term inchoate here means that the act was incomplete. The argument, therefore, alludes to a charge of attempted shoplifting, which has no express provisions in the penal code. This creates a tricky situation where a judge may decide to issue a full penalty for an offense of shoplifting or may reduce the sentence to be more lenient. The accused person will have to prove innocence in the best possible way, which can best be done by seeking help from the California Criminal Lawyer Group.
A defendant may also use the defense of police misconduct, whereby he or she is required to prove that the officers involved in his arrest have been involved in unlawful means that wrongfully place the accused in that position. If a defendant chooses to use this as a defense in the case, he/she should be truthful about it and provide supporting evidence to the claim. Accusing a state officer of misconduct on the job is a serious offense, as it challenges the federal system as well as puts the officer at risk of losing his or her job. Nevertheless, there have been reported cases of officers using crude tactics like entrapment, whereby the police officer coerces and applies force to make an accused person commit an offense.
The use of excessive force may be through the use of gadgets like tasers, physical violence, or threats of shooting at the coerced person. An officer may also be involved in lying and fabricating evidence against the accused, as well as planting evidence on him or her in order to enforce an arrest. This type of misconduct is orchestrated by officers who may have malicious intent or prejudice against a defendant. The courts should exercise due diligence in establishing the validity of the facts provided by the defendant’s attorney, as they may be a lead opening into the unjust systems that often prevail at the detriment of accused persons. The prosecution will also thoroughly rebut the defenses to prevent the escape of a guilty suspect from the legal consequences he is required to face.
Another reliable defense available to an accused person is a civil compromise. This defense does not serve to absolve the accused of his or her criminal liability, but rather to make compensation easier for the aggrieved parties. The doctrine often involves the remedy of specific performance, which requires the offender to pay damages to the victims of the crimes. The solution will often be executed in the form of monetary compensation. The payment of damages covers damaged goods, as well as damaged property around the commercial establishment, which the shoplifter may have mishandled, broken, or damaged in the process of theft.
The California Penal Code restricts this defense to avoid its misuse because it is often seen as the easy way out once the accused shoplifter is found guilty of the offense. Section 1377 states that the Civil compromise defense is not allowed when the misdemeanor, in this case of shoplifting, is against an older person, a child, or against a police officer. The restriction is set in place because those three groups of people are very sensitive. For example, an older person has limited capacity to protect themselves from a criminal act or even to try and stop it from happening. An accused person who acts against the older person can be sentenced to harsher penalties because of the lack of empathy on his or her part. The same case applies to criminal acts against a child, who cannot adequately protect themselves from criminal acts.
Also relevant to the list of possible defenses is that of mistaken identity. The argument is used to refute the prosecution’s eyewitnesses. The defense attorney may argue that the eyewitness’ statement is weak and cannot be relied upon. This is because there may be a fault in memory that makes the witness think the accused is the offender, whereas his or her identity is mistaken. Further, the defense may argue that the witnesses have made a false statement under oath, because of the unsure nature of relying on memory that cannot be fully proved. A false presumption made by witnesses that the identity of the person pointed out in a line of other possible offenders who may resemble him or her can also help the accused person’s defense. However, if there is evidence in the form of video footage, the defense is weak. It can easily be dispelled because the audio-visual evidence is indisputable and places the offender at the scene of the crime.
Any defense, if well articulated by your defense attorney can easily help win your shoplifting case and quash the prosecution’s accusations.
Contact a California Criminal Lawyer Near Me
Sometimes, we may find ourselves on the wrong side of the law due to unavoidable circumstances. If you may be facing shoplifting charges and require professional advice from a lawyer working with the California Criminal Lawyer Group, reach out to us at 408-622-0204. We will be happy to support and walk with you through the entire litigation process.