Is Accidental Shoplifting A Legitimate Defense?

Shoplifting is a crime, despite how small the amount of property stolen might be. It is classified as any theft that deprives a commercial establishment of property that has a value of $950 or less. Anything more than that, and the crime gets classified as grand theft, which can be considered a felony, as opposed to shoplifting, which is a misdemeanor. An example of shoplifting is if someone walks into a store, grabs some merchandise, and walks out without paying. You have probably heard of the types of merchandise that are commonly stolen, such as makeup, candy, and even cell phones and computers. After the person attempts to exit the store, either an alarm goes off, alerting the staff, a security guard outside the door stops them from going further, or a loss prevention representative stops them on their way to or shortly after exiting the store.

Can Shoplifting be Considered Accidental?

The key to a shoplifting charge is intent. The fact is, people walk out of commercial establishments all the time without paying for something by accident. Often, they forget that they put it in their bag, or it’s a smaller item at the bottom of a cart or basket that gets missed by the cashier. In these cases, the person did not intend to steal the items from the store, and therefore it is not considered shoplifting.

That said, it is not an easy defense for those who did not make a mistake. You cannot simply say you forgot to pay for something after getting caught and charged. Accidental shoplifting only applies to those who truly made an honest mistake, and it was obvious at the time of the incident.

An Example of Accidental Shoplifting

A perfect example of an accidental shoplifting situation is when the cashier simply misses items that the shopper intended to pay for. A shopper spends time in a store collecting her items for purchase, placing them in her basket without really paying attention. As it happens, some of the smaller items that she selected ended up inside some of the larger items. The shopper didn’t intend to do this. The cashier does not notice those smaller items, and sends the shopper on their way. After exiting the store, the shopper may be stopped by a loss prevention professional, or the shopper may notice the unpaid items after getting home. She then pays for those items to rectify the error.

This seems to be quite obviously a case where an error is made. If she was prosecuted, the shopper would have a defense to the charge. There may be security cameras that clearly show the shopper placing the items into the basket without paying attention to where the items were going. Of course, the shopper could claim it was accidental, and those cameras could show that she purposely hid the smaller items from the cashier. The act of returning later on to pay for the items does not necessarily negate the fact that the theft occurred in the first place if it was intentional.

There are other situations where a shopper might step outside the store for a moment with merchandise on their person. Maybe they are making a call, or maybe they need to ask a question of a friend waiting outside. A loss prevention officer may consider this to be an attempt to shoplift, and detain them. If there is no evidence that this occurred with malicious intent, then the shopper may have a reasonable defense to any charges.

Legal Defenses for Shoplifting

Intent is the most important factor when it comes to prosecuting shoplifting cases. Prosecutors, security guards, and store cashiers hear the “I meant to pay for it” on a regular basis. It can only be successful if there is evidence that it was simply a mistake by either the defendant or the staff of the store.

Video evidence can often be very powerful in these cases. The prosecutors will examine this evidence, and pay close attention to the action of the defendant from the time they enter the store to the time they leave. They may also ask the staff if they observed anything about the customer as they shopped. It can sometimes be very obvious if a customer is attempting to conceal merchandise or do something else such as switch price tags.

The fact is, nobody knows what is going on inside anyone else’s head. It can be hard to prove or disprove intent, so if a shopper walks out of a store without paying for something, there is a good chance they will be criminally charged. If this happens to you, then it is always a good idea to hire the best criminal attorney with years of experience defending shoplifting cases to help you get your best possible legal result.