Shoplifting offenses are fairly common, but that doesn't mean shoplifting crimes aren't taken seriously. Every state's penal code includes provisions that apply to shoplifting (usually under the umbrella of theft or larceny statutes), and penalties can be harsh -- especially when the dollar value of the merchandise is high, or the offender has a criminal record.
This article provides introductory information on shoplifting, including the kinds of acts that might constitute shoplifting, how shoplifting is charged, and when shoplifters can be sued under civil liability laws. At the end of this article you’ll find links to state-specific shoplifting laws and information.
What is Shoplifting?
Shoplifting is typically defined more broadly than the simple removal of merchandise from a store without paying for it. You can also be charged with shoplifting (or retail fraud) for things like:
- altering a price tag
- removing (or even just trying to remove) security tags and other theft-prevention
- “secreting” an item on your person while still in the store (putting merchandise in your pocket or purse), and
- removing an item from its packaging and concealing it in or among other merchandise.
How Shoplifting is Charged and Punished
In many states, shoplifting is charged and punished as a theft or larceny offense -- usually as a petty theft or the state’s lowest-level theft offense if the value of the merchandise stolen falls below a certain threshold ($500, for example). Other states do differentiate between shoplifting and standard theft offenses for purposes of charging and sentencing, and may treat shoplifting less severely than other theft offenses (i.e., as an infraction rather than as a misdemeanor).
For example, in Massachusetts, a first offense of shoplifting, where the merchandise is valued at less than $100, is punishable only by a fine of not more than $250, and the relevant statute makes clear that jail time is not an option.
As the dollar value of the stolen merchandise increases, so does the seriousness of the criminal charge that will result from a shoplifting offense -- from infractions (in some states) to misdemeanors, to low-level and mid-level felonies. See the state-specific links below to learn about how a shoplifting offense may be charged and punished in your state.
Civil Liability for Shoplifting
In addition to any criminal penalties stemming from a shoplifting offense, every state has a civil law under which any person who commits shoplifting can be held civilly liable to the store owner (or the owner of the merchandise) for money damages stemming from the incident. And in almost every state, the parent or legal guardian of a minor who commits shoplifting may also be on the hook for money damages -- although a few states require that the parent or guardian knew or should have known of the minor’s proclivity toward shoplifting. And in other states, where the parent or legal guardian is on the hook, the ceiling for the monetary penalty is lower than it would be for an adult shoplifter.
These statutes may require that, before filing a civil suit, the store owner make a written demand for payment (and that the demand go unmet). And in most states, the civil case may proceed regardless of whether criminal charges are ever filed in connection with the shoplifting incident.
Every state’s shoplifting civil liability law is different -- and you can click on the links at the end of this article for details on the law in your state -- but financial liability might include payment or repayment of:
- the full retail value of the item stolen, if not returned in sellable condition
- the store owner’s other financial losses resulting from the theft
- an additional civil penalty, usually based on a formula that includes the value of the merchandise stolen (i.e. “an additional penalty of $500 or two times the value of the merchandise, whichever is greater”), and
- repayment of the store or merchandise owner’s court costs and reasonable attorneys' fees.
Shoplifting “Sprees” and Retail Theft Rings
In many states, a person accused of committing a shoplifting offense will be charged with a more serious crime (and/or face a stiffer punishment) if there is evidence that the offense was part of a shoplifting “spree” or organized series of thefts from retail establishments. Some states call these schemes “retail theft rings,” especially when they include the illegal resale of the stolen items.
State-by-State Shoplifting Information
For information on shoplifting offenses and civil liability laws related to shoplifting in a specific state, check out the information and links below.
District of Columbia
More information on shoplifting laws.