Wisconsin's theft statute covers a broad range of prohibited conduct, including offenses commonly referred to as larceny, embezzlement, and theft by false pretenses. In this article, we'll review the definition of, and penalties for, theft and retail theft (shoplifting).
Theft is a crime against property. Under Wisconsin law, theft occurs when a person does any of the following:
The definition of property includes more than just personal property and money. It also includes real property, utilities (like electricity and gas), documents, ownership rights (such as in a business), and other intangible rights.
(Wis. Stat. § 943.20 (2020).)
In addition to crimes that fall under the general theft statute, Wisconsin statute identifies several other property crimes relating to theft, including:
This article will discuss the classifications and penalties for offenses that fall under the general theft statute. To learn more about specific theft offenses (such as those listed above), check out the Wisconsin Statutes or consult with an attorney.
(Wis. Stat. §§ 943.20 and following (2020).)
Like many states, Wisconsin classifies its theft offenses according to the value of the property or services stolen—and, in some cases, according to the type of property involved in the theft. Penalties range from a class A misdemeanor to a class F felony. In addition to fines and possible imprisonment, a judge can order an offender to pay restitution to the victim (for losses resulting from theft). Let's take a closer look at different theft offenses in the state of Wisconsin.
(Wis. Stat. §§ 939.50, 939.51, 943.20 (2020).)
The effect of prior convictions on a current theft charge is not specifically covered in Wisconsin's theft statutes, like it is for a drug charge. However, Wisconsin law does authorize harsher punishments for "habitual criminality," and any prior criminal convictions on an offender's record will almost surely result in a harsher punishment at sentencing time.
(Wis. Stat. § 939.62 (2020).)
Retail theft (often called shoplifting) carries criminal and civil penalties. Like most states, Wisconsin's law allows for a criminal prosecution (brought by a government prosecutor) and a civil lawsuit (brought by the victim, here the merchant).
A person commits a retail theft by intentionally doing any of the following acts without the merchant's consent and with intent to permanently deprive the merchant of the merchandise or its full retail value:
It's also considered retail theft to use or possess a theft detection shielding device or device remover in order to avoid setting off an alarm.
Under these provisions, a person commits retail theft even if they don't make it out of the store with the merchandise. It's enough to hide merchandise under a coat or in a bag intending to steal it. Switching price tags or containers to get a lower price on an item also constitutes retail theft.
The penalties for retail theft are based on the value of the merchandise involved. In addition, the judge can direct the offender to pay restitution to the merchant. (Restitution compensates a crime victim for their losses.) You can find the penalty ranges above.
A class A misdemeanor increases to a class H felony when two or more people conspire to commit a retail theft scheme involving reselling stolen merchandise online. (Wis. Stat. § 943.50 (2020).)
In addition to any criminal penalties, a person who commits retail theft (or the parent or legal guardian of a minor who commits retail theft) may be civilly liable to the merchant for:
The total amount awarded for punitive damages and attorneys' fees cannot exceed $500 for each retail theft violation. (The combined amount caps out at $300 for a juvenile offender.)
(Wis. Stat. § 943.51 (2020).)
If you were arrested for or charged with a theft crime, contact a Wisconsin criminal defense attorney. Even a minor theft offense can have permanent negative consequences, so it's important to bring an attorney on board as soon as possible. Be sure to ask your attorney about the effects theft charges may have on current or future employment, ability to obtain housing, and even immigration status. An experienced attorney will know the law, possible defenses, and both the short- and long-term consequences for your situation.