State Supreme Court Expands Shoplifting, Reducing Penalties

By William Vogeler, Esq. on March 30, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Applying a voter-approved initiative designed to ease prison overcrowding, the California Supreme Court effectively reduced a felon's crime to a misdemeanor by expanding the definition of shoplifting.

The high court said that shoplifting does not apply only to taking merchandise from stores. Under Proposition 47, the court said, it also means taking property worth less than $950 in other ways.

"Here we hold the electorate similarly intended that the shoplifting statute apply to an entry to commit a nonlarcenous act," Justice Carol Corrigan said for the 5-2 majority.

Stolen Check Case

Approved by voters last November, Prop 47 reduced a number of drug and theft crimes to misdemeanors. In People v. Gonzales, the defendant had entered a bank to cash stolen checks -- a theft by false pretenses rather than larceny.

Gonzales had stolen the checks from his grandmother in 2013. He then went to a bank and cashed the checks for $125.

He was charged with burglary and forgery, plead guilty to burglary and was placed on probation. He was later jailed for breaking probation.

Under statutes created by Prop 47, Gonzales petitioned to have his felony reduced to a misdemeanor. A trial judge and an appellate court rejected his petition, but the Supreme Court reversed.

Less Than $950

The high court concluded that the statutes applied because Gonzalez entered the bank with the intent to steal, and it was for less than $950. Although it was not shoplifting, the court acknowledged, the theft was the type of crime intended by voters.

"[D]efendant's act of entering a bank to cash a stolen check for less than $950, traditionally regarded as a theft by false pretenses rather than larceny, now constitutes shoplifting under the statute," the majority said and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Justices Ming Chin and Goodwin Liu did not agree. They said the court's interpretation of shoplifting would "modify that term from its commonly understood meaning and expand it beyond all definition."

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