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  • Writer's pictureBlair Goss

Why Did California Decriminalize Shoplifting?

A legal challenge taking hold in California is the debate over the effectiveness of the decriminalization of shoplifting. While state law does not legalize this crime, it does make the penalties less harsh.

Decriminalization began in 2014 with the passage of California Proposition 47. It changed certain theft crimes, including shoplifting, from felonies to misdemeanors. About 60 percent of California voters approved this change.

However, there is still some uncertainty as to whether the law effectively strengthens the community. The intent is to recenter focus on crime prevention programs and avoid recidivism while saving prison resources. Problems arise when prosecutors fail to charge for the shoplifting crime, as misdemeanors usually do not warrant such effort.

What Is Shoplifting?

What Is Shoplifting?

The act of shoplifting is entering a business with the intent to steal no more than $950 worth of merchandise. While this counts as a misdemeanor, stealing merchandise worth more than that becomes a felony.

A prosecutor must prove two things to convict someone of shoplifting or organized retail theft:

  1. The defendant entered a business during standard business hours

  2. The defendant intended to steal products totaling less than $950 or less

The indicted person does not have to be in possession of any store merchandise to be charged with the crime. An unsuccessful theft is just as punishable as a successful one.

Moreover, the primary difference between shoplifting and petty thefts is the element of intent. If the accused enters businesses determined to steal merchandise, then they have committed shoplifting.

What Is a Petty Theft Crime?

Similar to shoplifting, petty theft is considered a misdemeanor. However, the former deals with thieves planning to steal. The latter is the crime of stealing other people's property in an unplanned fashion. It would be like going into businesses and committing thefts on a whim.

Both crimes receive the same penalties and similar, if not identical, sentencing.

What are the Penalties for Shoplifting?

Treated as a misdemeanor, shoplifting has three possible penalties for convicted shoplifters:

  • Probation

  • Jail time up to six months

  • A fine of $1,000

These penalties applied to sentencing are not always the same. People with criminal histories often face harsher punishment, such as longer jail time or a felony charge. The following individuals could experience having a misdemeanor turn into something more severe:

  • Registered sex offenders

  • People convicted of murder, attempted murder, or solicitation of murder

  • People facing a life sentence in prison

  • People convicted of possessing a weapon of mass destruction

  • People convicted of vehicular manslaughter while under the influence

The law in California determines that those convicted of a felony theft could face up to three years in county jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

What are the Downsides of Decriminalized Shoplifting?

Proposition 47 intended for less intense punishments for people who commit shoplifting. This is to aid in conserving prison resources and its budget, and overall making a positive impact on the community.

However, store employees and owners are noting the relatively new law may be backfiring. Thieves are exploiting the misdemeanor qualification of shoplifting and using it to carry out the theft.

NBC News reported that shoplifting in California seems to be on the rise due to social media. However, officials state that theft is not increasing.

The report described how covered shoplifters were caught on video running out of a Neiman Marcus in San Francisco with designer handbags into getaway cars. The news outlet went on to express how videos like these have raised concern about the passed Proposition 47 allowing for more theft, often without consequence. Still, there are defenders of Prop 47, including Governor Gavin Newsom.

Nevertheless, when a crime becomes a misdemeanor, the police rarely get involved. That means that when a store gets robbed, it is up to the store owner or the employees to step in.

As such, this poses a threat to public safety because stores become more personally responsible for the protection of their goods. Plus, owners often have to upcharge their products to account for stolen goods since they may not get covered.

When Does Shoplifting Become Felony Theft?

The barrier between shoplifting and felony theft varies based on the state. In California, the threshold is any merchandise totaling more than $950 or less. An act of stealing more than that would become a felony according to law.

Moreover, the crime can face more severe penalties when the act of theft involves other offenses, such as assault or homicide. A felony charge is also conceivable for those with a criminal history containing any of the crimes listed above.

How Does the California Law Help Those Already Charged with a Felony Theft?

Under the new law with Proposition 47, people prosecuted and convicted of a felony theft that would now be considered a misdemeanor are subject to resentencing. They should have filed a resentencing petition within three years of the proposition being passed.

Offenders charged with shoplifting who possess a criminal history, turning their misdemeanor into a felony, would not be eligible for resentencing.

The Defense for a Shoplifting Charge

The Defense for a Shoplifting Charge

The law requires that a prosecutor prove various elements of a shoplifting case to charge a person with the crime. Fortunately, that means there are some defense tactics for those who do not deserve tough sentencing or sentencing at all. Goss Law answer advise on what happens if you get caught shoplifting in California.

Most guilty parties can use their Fourth Amendment rights to their advantage. If the investigation was faulty and some aspects were conducted illegally, the accused could reduce their sentence.

Meanwhile, if the case is one of mistaken identity, a trusted lawyer can help victims prove their innocence.

Overall, having Sacramento theft defense lawyers from Goss Law can increase positive probabilities in shoplifting cases.

Contact a Trusted Criminal Defense Attorney

Getting arrested and charged with shoplifting does not always mean a defendant should receive the expected sentence. Plus, with changes surrounding the law, navigating a shoplifting case can be a challenging ordeal. Goss Law can also answer questions like, "What is grand theft in California?"

A trusted lawyer from the experienced legal team at Goss Law can help clients better understand Proposition 47 and what it means for their case.

Contact us for dependable legal expertise!


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