What to Expect if You're Accused of Shoplifting

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on September 24, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

What should you do if you're accused of shoplifting? Depending on the situation, it can be a minor nuisance or a potentially costly criminal ordeal.

Depending on the amount allegedly stolen, shoplifting can be met with a mere citation, or charged as a misdemeanor or even a felony. How you behave when confronted about alleged shoplifting can also affect your case.

Here are five things to expect and think about if you're faced with a shoplifting accusation:

  1. Stay calm, and consider remaining silent. Being angry can make things worse and often leads to verbal vitriol that you'll wish you could take back. Take a deep breath and count to 10 before you act or make any statements. In fact, silence can be golden as what you say can be used against you in court, so it may be best to ask for a criminal defense attorney and then just shut up.

  2. Be familiar with the "shopkeeper's privilege." Store owners and security officers can legally detain you on suspicion of shoplifting while they wait for cops to arrive. To do so, they must have probable cause that you were shoplifting, but they can only use reasonable means and reasonable force to detain you. The use of deadly force, or force that causes great bodily injury, is generally not allowed and can form the basis for a lawsuit down the road.

  3. You don't have to actually "shoplift" to be charged. State laws about shoplifting vary, but in many states, being a "lookout" or purposely distracting bystanders' attention away from a shoplifter can be prosecuted under shoplifting laws. The crime of shoplifting can also include altering or swapping price tags.

  4. Mistakes happen on both sides of the register. A store owner may have honestly (but mistakenly) thought he saw you shoplift. Or you may have honestly forgotten to pay until it was too late. You may want to try to explain your honest mistake and offer to make good. A heartfelt explanation and apology may be enough to avoid prosecution, but if it doesn't, you may need to go on to Tip 5.

  5. Contact a lawyer. Criminal penalties are possible for all types of shoplifting. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you review evidence and get the best possible outcome for your specific case. First-time convicted shoplifters can usually get community service or attend an education program in lieu of harsher penalties. In more serious shoplifting cases, a plea deal may be possible. That's why putting down a little money for a lawyer can potentially pay off big-time when you're accused of shoplifting.

Do you still have your own question about a shoplifting or retail theft issue? FindLaw Answers has a robust Criminal Law message board where you can usually get an answer to your issue within 24 hours. Feel free to join the conversation.

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