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.
Shoplifting is typically defined more broadly than the simple removal of merchandise from a store without paying for it. However successfully leaving the store with unpaid merchandise is not the sole, defining characteristic. Intent to steal suffices to be charged with shoplifting (or retail fraud) for things like:
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.
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:
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.
For information on shoplifting offenses and civil liability laws related to shoplifting in a specific state, check out the information and links below.