It's almost never a good idea to plead guilty to shoplifting (or any crime) at your first court appearance. In most cases, you'll want to talk to your lawyer about your options. There might be alternatives to a criminal conviction.
It might seem simpler to just plead guilty to shoplifting—especially if you‘re told you will get probation—but remember that court is just the beginning, not the end, of the consequences you face. Consider the following.
Many people don't realize that convictions don't just "drop off" your record. Criminal convictions tend to follow a person for years, possibly for life. The length of time will depend on the state where you got the conviction. While a few states automatically seal certain low-level criminal records, most don't. Once a criminal conviction is placed in the public record, it's typically there until a court seals or expunges it.
Most convictions are public records. When someone applies for a job, housing, loan, professional license, or college, most institutions will conduct a background check. A shoplifting conviction might seem minor, but to an employer, bank, or other institution, it can be an indication that the person is untrustworthy. Ultimately, these types of future consequences can be far worse than any sentence you might get from the court.
So, can't someone just get their record sealed or expunged? Yes, but expungement has its limitations. In most states, you'll need to wait several years to ask the court for this remedy and have no subsequent run-ins with the law. Once eligible for expungement, you usually need to file a motion, pay filing fees, and appear in court, and the judge has a choice to grant or deny your request.
While expungement can be worthwhile in the end, it doesn't necessarily wipe your record clean. Expunged records are still available to the police and courts and may be disclosed to certain employers and professional boards if relevant to a job. Also, if you get in trouble with the law again, the judge can look at your prior convictions when deciding an appropriate punishment. Many states increase penalties for repeat theft offenses. So best case scenario is to avoid a conviction altogether.
First-time offenders (and possibly repeat offenders) may qualify for diversion or suspended sentences—options that can avoid a conviction.
Many prosecutors' offices and courts have diversion programs for nonviolent offenses like theft. Even someone charged with felony theft charges may be eligible for diversion. A diversion program is similar to probation, but with one key difference—no conviction. If accepted into a diversion program, you might be required to attend an educational program, pay restitution, perform community service, and avoid any further arrests for a period of time. Usually, diversion is a one-time deal and it's not a guaranteed option.
Sometimes, you can avoid court altogether by going through diversion. You make an agreement with the prosecutor to complete the diversion terms within a set period of time. If you do so successfully, the prosecutor agrees to drop the charges. In some cases, a court appearance might be necessary so the judge can sign off on diversion.
Judges might also have the option to hold off on sentencing and place the person on probation—sometimes called a deferred sentence. If the person successfully completes the probation terms, the judge may dismiss the case and seal your arrest and charging records.
If your case ends up in court, your defense attorney will likely try to work out a plea deal with the prosecutor.
It depends. If you're facing misdemeanor charges and it's a first offense, you might get a plea deal that involves only probation and no jail time. A lot will depend on the circumstances of the case (the value of the shoplifted items) and your criminal record.
Most states impose shoplifting penalties based on the value of the stolen merchandise and whether the defendant has prior shoplifting convictions. State penalties vary, but a first-time offense involving less than $1,000 in stolen goods would likely be a misdemeanor. Most states' misdemeanors carry a maximum sentence of one year in jail and fines. However, most first-time offenders won't see much, if any, jail time. Judges will usually give this defendant a chance to serve their sentence in the community under probation. Repeat offenders and felony offenders, though, will likely be looking at some jail time (even if they get probation).
A plea deal isn't the only option if you go to court. Depending on the circumstances, your attorney might be able to argue that the case should be dismissed or get the charges reduced. For instance, the following issues might arise in your shoplifting case.
Mistakes. Store security people are not trained police officers. They make mistakes and mishandle evidence. If the reliability of the evidence is in doubt, it will likely get tossed and the prosecutor might not have much of a case left.
Unavailable witnesses. Private security personnel often don't stay long in the same job or at the same address. If the witness who claims to have seen you steal is not available, the prosecutor won't be able to prove the case unless there is a videotape that can be identified by someone.
Inflating the value of the stolen goods. Stores sometimes claim that their loss is far higher than the truth. A high claimed loss might change your case from a misdemeanor to a felony or bar you from diversion. It will certainly increase the amount of restitution you will be forced to pay. But the store has to document the amount of loss they claim. If they can't, the amount of restitution or even the level of the charges may go down.
Ultimately, it's a defendant's decision whether or not to plead guilty. If you‘ve explored all the alternatives and believe that a guilty plea is your best option, it's your call. Your lawyer can advise you and will defend you, but certain calls are for the defendant to make.