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  • Writer's pictureBlair Goss

Get to Know What Happens If You Get Caught Shoplifting in California

In California, getting a "five-finger discount" can cost an individual six months in prison and a hefty fine. A "five-finger discount" is an idiom that refers to stealing a product. Shoplifting is the act of taking merchandise from a shop without paying for it. In most states, the definition of shoplifting is the same. However, there may be some differences in the statute.


Criminal defense attorneys at Goss Law understand the impact of shoplifting on one's life. Those arrested for shoplifting must immediately contact Goss Law to learn more about their legal options.


What Is Shoplifting in California?

What Is Shoplifting in California?


The California Penal Code 459.5 defines shoplifting as a person entering a commercial establishment during its normal business hours with the intention of stealing, taking, or driving away a product valued at $950 or less. Any other entry into the commercial establishment with the intent to commit larceny falls under burglary.


An individual is guilty of shoplifting if the prosecutor can prove without a reasonable doubt the following three major elements:

  1. They entered a commercial business;

  2. During normal business hours;

  3. With the intent to steal merchandise worth $950 or less.

A prosecutor who successfully proves the three elements of shoplifting can convict the defendant of the crime. An important thing to note here is that the individual accused of shoplifting does not need to leave the store with the product to be guilty of shoplifting.


The main idea is to prove the defendant's intent. Did the defendant intend to steal merchandise? It does not matter whether they got caught outside the store or inside as long as there was the intent to steal. The prosecutor will have to prove the defendant's criminal intent.


For example, a person's actions in the store appear that they are stealing a product on a nearby shelf. Fortunately, the store's CCTV footage captures the person's moves, and the prosecutor can use that footage to prove that the person had criminal intent to steal.


Example of Shoplifting


John walks into a video game store with the intent to steal a $40 video game during business hours. However, as he walks into the store, his eyes fall upon the latest video game console costing $500. Conveniently, John has a duffle bag large enough to fit the video game console, and he decides to steal the console instead of the video game and leaves the store.


However, on his way to the parking lot, the security officer suspects John of stealing and apprehends him. John faces charges under California Penal Code 459.5(a). During court proceedings, John argues that he did not have the intent to steal the video console when he walked into the store. Is John guilty of shoplifting?


When considering John's case, it is crucial to determine whether John had the intention to steal, did he walk into the store during business hours, and did he steal anything less than $950.


In the case of John, his legal defense will not hold as even though he did not have the intention to steal the $500 video console before he walked into the store, he did have the intention to steal (the $40 video game). John also stepped into the store during business hours and stole something less than $950 in value. Under shoplifting laws, John is guilty of stealing merchandise.


What Are the Penalties for Shoplifting in California?


The California Penal Code 459.5 explains in detail the penalties an individual may face for shoplifting laws in California if convicted. Typically, shoplifting is a misdemeanor, and the defendant may face a maximum fine of up to $1,000 and a county jail sentence of up to six months.


Stealing any item valued at $950 or less falls under California Penal Code 459.5 and is shoplifting. However, if anyone tries to steal merchandise valued over $950, it falls under California Penal Code Section 487 grand theft, which can be a felony. Goss Law can advise on what felony theft in California is.


Under Penal Code 487 PC, if a person gets convicted of grand theft, they may face a maximum fine of $10,000 and a jail sentence of up to three years. The chances that a grand theft is a felony depends on prior convictions for crimes such as:

  • Sex offender involving a minor

  • A sex offender involving the use of force

  • Gross vehicular manslaughter

  • Murder or attempted murder

  • Any serious felony punishable by life in prison

Under the California Penal Code 490.5 PC, business owners who are victims of shoplifting can write a demand letter and demand restitution by requiring the shoplifter to pay them for the stolen goods.

Business owners can send these demand letters to their law firms and seek up to $500 in damages from the shoplifter.


What Are the Defenses for Shoplifting in California?


Those facing shoplifting charges have several legal defenses they can use to reduce their sentence or even dismiss the charges. These defenses include the following.


Lack of Intent


The prosecutor must prove that the defendant had an intent, and if they're unable to prove that, they cannot convict the defendant. For example, a defendant who accidentally takes an item from a shop without realizing it can argue that they did not have the intent to steal.


Several types of evidence could help prove that the defendant did not have the intention to steal, and these may include the following:

  • Video footage: If the defendant accidentally took an item from the shop without realizing it, the video footage would show that the defendant did not act in a suspicious manner.

  • Receipts: The defendant could provide receipts of actual purchases they made in the store when they accidentally took the item to prove that they did not intend to steal.

  • Witness testimony: A person who sees the defendant accidentally taking the item from the shop could testify that the defendant was unaware or did not realize it and therefore did not have the intent to steal.

The defendant could also argue that when they entered the commercial business, they did not intend to steal, which could help them avoid a shoplifting conviction. However, they might still face a conviction for petty theft.


For example, Stella walks into the store with 70 cents in her pocket to buy a chocolate bar. However, when she enters the store, she realizes the chocolate bar costs $1, and she does not have sufficient money to buy it. Not considering the law, Stella pockets the chocolate bar, but the shopkeeper sees the act, and she gets charged under §459.5(a).


Stella could argue that she had 70 cents in her pocket and went into the store with the intent to buy the chocolate bar rather than steal it. Since Stella did not intend to steal before entering the store, she is not guilty of shoplifting but could face petty theft charges. Goss Law can answer questions like, "Why did California decriminalize shoplifting?"


Mistake Defense


There are cases where individuals walk into the store to purchase the item and forget to pay for it or keep it in their bag with the intent to pay for it before walking out of the store.


The prosecutor might charge them with shoplifting, but the individual and their attorney can argue that the defendant had the intention to pay for the item by providing the necessary evidence.


Mistaken Identity


It could be possible that the defendant was not the actual perpetrator of the crime, and the shopkeeper mistakenly identified them as a culprit. This is a classic case of mistaken identity and is a legal defense.


To use the legal defense of mistaken identity, the defendant must prove that they were at another location (a different isle) when the crime occurred or provide other forms of evidence, such as security camera footage and witness testimony.


Illegal Search and Seizure


Unless there is reasonable suspicion of store theft, a law enforcement officer cannot detain individuals and forcibly check their bags, especially if they do not consent to a voluntary bag search.


The Fourth Amendment protects every American from illegal search and seizure, and the defendant can argue that there was no probable cause for the arrest and that the unlawful search and seizure violated their Fourth Amendment rights.


How to Resolve a Shoplifting Case with a Conviction?


Besides legal defenses to fight criminal charges for shoplifting, a shoplifter may be able to eliminate or reduce the penalties with the following two methods.


Diversion Program


The defendant has to plead guilty and be ready to take responsibility for their actions to be eligible for a diversion program. However, they must agree to a set of rules or conditions that the court set, such as community service or restitution.


Completing the diversion program can lead to the dismissal of the criminal case, and the defendant will not have anything on their criminal record.


Civil Compromise


A civil compromise is when there is an agreement between the shopkeeper and the shoplifter, in which the shoplifter agrees to repay the costs of the theft in return that the business owner does not pursue any charges against them.


Prefiling Intervention


Before the prosecutor files criminal charges against the shoplifter, the defendant can pursue prefiling intervention, a program available in California to help eligible defendants avoid prosecution. It can be challenging to seek profiling intervention, which is why it is crucial that defendants in a shoplifting case reach out to experienced criminal defense attorneys.


A Sacramento theft defense attorney can help build a strong case by assembling the facts that led to the arrest, the circumstances surrounding the case, and the mitigating factors that contextualize the act of shoplifting. The attorney can do this in several ways, including hiring a private investigator to gather the relevant evidence to prove the elements of a profiling intervention.


Prefiling intervention is not available to everyone. It depends on the practices of the prosecuting agency in charge of prosecuting the case and defendants who do not have a prior criminal record, take responsibility for the crime committed, and agree to join counseling or similar programs.


Can Defendants Reduce their Burglary Sentences to Shoplifting Misdemeanor?


In 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47, which brought shoplifting under the scrutiny of the criminal justice system. Prior to Proposition 47, prosecutors would charge shoplifters under the burglary laws with felony penalties that would result in up to a six-year jail sentence.


If the defendant is facing burglary penalties, under state law, they have the right to apply for re-sentencing to have the burglary felony charges reduced to a shoplifting misdemeanor. A successful re-sentencing could reduce the jail sentence, and if the defendant has already served their time in jail, they could seek to remove the felony charges from their criminal record.


Those charged with burglary felony and are eligible for re-sentencing under Proposition 47 must speak to experienced criminal defense attorneys to discuss their case and learn about their legal options.


Receiving Stolen Property in California


Under California Penal Code 496(a), buying or receiving stolen property despite knowing how the seller or individual obtained the property constitutes a "wobbler" crime. It could either be a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances of the case.


Anyone convicted of a felony for buying or receiving the stolen property may face up to three years in state prison, a maximum fine of $10,000, or both.


How Can a Criminal Defense Attorney at Goss Law Help Defendants Facing Shoplifting Charges?

How Can a Criminal Defense Attorney at Goss Law Help Defendants Facing Shoplifting Charges?


Criminal defense attorneys at Goss Law have extensive experience handling criminal cases, including shoplifting. They have good command over shoplifting laws and know how to protect the rights of their clients.


There are several ways criminal defense attorneys at Goss Law can help those facing misdemeanor or felony penalties for shoplifting, including the following:

  • Review the evidence: The legal team at Goss Law has the resources to investigate the circumstances around the incident and review the evidence to determine if the law enforcement officers violated their client's rights. An investigation can also reveal if the evidence procured came through illegal means, which can be grounds for dismissing evidence.

  • Negotiate a plea deal: Depending on the circumstances of the case and whether or not the defendant has a prior conviction, the attorneys can negotiate a plea deal with the prosecutor to reduce the sentence or seek alternative sentencing options.

  • Provide guidance: During the legal process, the defendant may feel worried about the consequences and the future impact of their actions. The legal team at Goss Law will thoroughly review the case and provide guidance throughout the legal process, ensuring that their client knows what's best for them and allowing them to make informed decisions.


Arrested for Shoplifting? Call Goss Law Now!


Getting arrested for shoplifting in California can be daunting and affect one's career opportunities. Defendants must protect their case by not speaking to law enforcement officers about the details of the act and contacting a reputable criminal defense attorney.


Those facing arrests for shoplifting in Sacramento, California, must immediately contact (916) 999-7689 to schedule a free consultation with experienced criminal defense attorneys at Goss Law.

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