Shoplifting Laws

Shoplifting offenses are fairly common but that doesn't make the consequences any less serious. A person who shoplifts can face both criminal charges and a civil lawsuit.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 2/15/2023

Shoplifting offenses are fairly common, but that doesn't mean shoplifting crimes aren't taken seriously. Every state's penal (criminal) code includes provisions that apply to shoplifting (usually under the umbrella of theft or larceny statutes), and the 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 and theft articles.

What Is Shoplifting?

Shoplifting is typically defined as the unauthorized removal of merchandise from a store without paying for it. But sometimes, a person can commit shoplifting even when they don't remove anything from the store (more on that below). In some situations, the intent to steal, along with an act in furtherance of that intent, can result in criminal charges for shoplifting (or retail fraud). An act in furtherance of shoplifting might include:

  • altering a price tag
  • removing (or even just trying to remove) security tags or other theft-prevention devices
  • hiding or concealing an item on your person while still in the store (putting merchandise in your pocket or purse), or
  • removing an item from its packaging and concealing it in or among other merchandise.

Can I Be Convicted of Shoplifting When I Never Left the Store with the Merchandise?

Yes, as noted above, there are many ways a person can commit the crime of shoplifting without leaving the store with stolen goods. All they need to do is move the property or exercise control over it in a way that's inconsistent with the shop owner's reasonable expectations about how shoppers will handle merchandise.

For example, shopkeepers know that people will handle an item to examine it, purchase it, try it on, show it to a companion, and so on. Shoppers might even move the item to another department to compare it with other merchandise. But when someone is moving and carrying the merchandise in a way that strongly suggests they're trying to steal it, they could be guilty of shoplifting.

Let's say a woman places several blouses over her arm, takes them to her husband in another part of the store, and shows them to him. Normally, under these circumstances, the woman probably wouldn't look like she intends to steal the blouses. But if she puts the items in her backpack or under her coat, a prosecutor might be able to convince the jury that these actions indicate an intent to leave without paying for them. So, security guards or salespeople can approach and detain someone who has concealed merchandise, even before the person leaves the store.

But many clerks and security personnel won't apprehend a suspected thief until that person has actually left the store. Although they'd be justified in detaining someone for merely concealing merchandise, they often wait until the person walks out so they have an open-and-shut case. It would be tough for a defendant to argue that they intended to pay for the goods if they walked out without doing so. On the other hand, defendants who are apprehended pre-exit might convince the jury that their actions were consistent with an intent to eventually pay for the merchandise before leaving the store.

How Shoplifting Is Charged and Punished

In many states, shoplifting is charged and punished as a theft or larceny offense—usually as petty or misdemeanor theft, if the value of the merchandise stolen falls below a certain threshold (say $200, for example). Other states differentiate between the crimes of shoplifting and general theft for purposes of charging and sentencing, and some treat shoplifting less severely than other theft offenses (such as an infraction rather than a misdemeanor).

For example, in Massachusetts, a first or second offense for shoplifting merchandise valued under $250 carries a fine-only penalty (no jail time). But the lowest-level larceny (theft) offense carries the possibility of up to a year in jail for stealing the same amount. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 266, §§ 30, 30A (2022).)

As the dollar value of the stolen merchandise increases, so does the seriousness of the criminal charge that will result from a shoplifting offense. Penalties might start as infractions (in some states) and increase to misdemeanors or felonies. Each state uses different thresholds (dollar amounts) to classify offense levels.

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 evidence exists 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" or "organized retail theft," especially when they include the illegal resale of the stolen items. Generally, these types of crimes are felonies.

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 likelihood of shoplifting). Where the parent or legal guardian is on the hook for damages, some states lower the penalty amount that a parent or minor must pay (compared to adult shoplifters). Some states exempt foster parents from liability.

Many of the civil shoplifting laws require that, before filing a civil suit, the store owner must 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.

While every state's civil shoplifting law is different, common financial liability includes 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 ("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.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you face shoplifting criminal charges, speak with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The defense attorney can protect your rights, help you navigate the criminal justice system, and advise you on the consequences of a conviction. You should speak with a civil law attorney if you received a demand letter or summons for a lawsuit from the store owner.

Pleading guilty to shoplifting or agreeing to settle a civil lawsuit without counsel can lead to ramifications of which you may not be aware. For example, a criminal record for misdemeanor shoplifting can make it difficult to get a job or rent an apartment. Contact a lawyer as soon as possible to discuss your options.

State-by-State Shoplifting Laws

For information on shoplifting offenses and civil liability laws related to shoplifting in a specific state, check out the information and links below.

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