Shoplifting, Stealing, and Theft: A First Time Offense

Factors like the value of the stolen goods, if minors were involved, if you were caught on tape, and more can distinguish shoplifting, stealing, and theft charges. Even if this is your first offense, you can be charged with a felony. The first thing you should do is see if the merchant will accept payment in return for encouraging the State to drop the charges. For more legal help with shoplifting, stealing, or theft, use the free tool below.

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Written By: Jeffrey JohnsonUPDATED: Jul 15, 2021Fact Checked

There is no standard case when it comes to shoplifting. People can shoplift anything and everything. Shoplifting can cover everything from candy to alcohol, combs to jewelry, and cleaning supplies to computer equipment. Not only this, but shoplifting laws vary greatly from state to state. Because of the complicated nature of shoplifting cases and shoplifting laws, you should work with an experienced criminal defense attorney to help resolve your case. When speaking with an attorney, you should provide answers to the following questions:

1. What is the value of the item or items that you stole?

2. Were you intoxicated when the incident occurred?

3. Do the items indicate that you have a drug problem?

4. Did you involve others in a plan to steal the items? If so, how many people? Were any of them minors, people with mental health issues, people with developmental disabilities, or people who were elderly?

5. Were you stopped by a security officer or store merchants who tried to recover the items? What happened as a result of that interaction?

6. Were you caught on videotape, or on another type of recording device, such as audio tape?

7. What is your criminal history?

8. Can you pay back the merchant right away? This may encourage them to decline to testify against you. 

Even if this is your first offense, you can be charged with a felony. For example, if you have stolen a 24-karat gold chain, or a child was involved in the act, you will not be offered the same plea bargain as a person alleged of slipping a pack of mints into their pocket.  

The first thing you should do is ask your attorney to talk to the merchant. See if the merchant will accept payment in return for encouraging the State to drop the charges. Be aware that the merchant does not have the authority to drop the charges. The State is pursuing the case. Only the State can drop the case. However, if the merchant wants the State to drop the case, the State may do so.

If the State does not want to drop the case, but sees your crime as relatively insignificant, you may be offered the chance to participate in a pretrial diversion program. In some areas this is also called a deferred prosecution. A pretrial diversion program is a type of plea bargain. In this program, you usually complete community service hours and pay the court a fine. You are also instructed not to commit another alleged offense for a set period. When you complete the community service hours, pay the fines, and sit out the set period without incident, the State will drop the charges.  

Although the charges have been dropped, the incident remains in your criminal history. You have no conviction, but the court has a record that you participated in the pretrial diversion program. If you get a second charge, especially for shoplifting, it is extremely unlikely that you will get a second chance to participate in a pretrial diversion program. 

If the State decides not to offer you the chance to participate in a pretrial diversion program, you need to decide whether you want to challenge the accusations in a trial or take a plea bargain. If you were intoxicated at the time of the incident, or the items that you took indicate that you have a drug problem, consider going into a rehab program or seeing a drug counselor. The State may consider dropping charges if it finds you are taking action to avoid a similar incident.  


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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

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