What are my Options if I’m Charged with Shoplifting in NJ?
November 19, 2023
Shoplifting is commonly thought of as petty theft by youths pushing boundaries or giving in to impulses to get a DVD or shirt they want. However, shoplifting adults steal for other reasons, some for psychological disorders, like kleptomania, and still others to make big money, like the leader of a shoplifting ring. For that reason, New Jersey punishes shoplifting according to the value of the stolen items. The punishment for shoplifting ranges from a disorderly persons offense with jail time for a conviction to a second degree indictable crime with a lengthy prison sentence.
Range of Severity of Shoplifting Offenses
For example, if you take that DVD, stick it in your pocket, and walk out of the store with it, you probably face a disorderly persons offense since the value of the DVD is less than $200.00. A disorderly persons offense conviction can mean a six-month jail term and a $1,000.00 fine. If, on the other hand, the value of the shoplifted merchandise is $200.00 or more, you face charges for a fourth degree indictable crime.
Fourth degree shoplifting convictions are punishable by up to 18 months in state prison and a $10,000.00 fine. It is a fourth degree crime to shoplift items valued between $200.00 and $500.00. For items valued at $500.00 to $75,000.00, you face three to five years in prison and a $15,000.00 fine for a third degree crime. Anything $75,000.00 and over is a second degree crime. You could spend five to ten years in prison and pay up to $150,000.00 in fines for a conviction.
Detention and Arrest for Alleged Shoplifting
When you leave a store or mall with unpaid merchandise or otherwise pay less for an item by changing price tags or rendering a security device inoperable, a security guard, police officer, or storeowner may stop you when they have probable cause to believe you stole something. They may detain you to retrieve the stolen items so long as the detention and recovery of things is reasonable. They cannot keep you for an unreasonably long time. Law enforcement can arrest you if they believe you shoplifted.
After an arrest, the police are more likely to release you with a summons to appear in court to answer a disorderly person offense for shoplifted items valued at less than $200.00. Law enforcement may hold you in jail on a warrant and bring you before a judge the following court day for higher amounts. Depending on the circumstances, the judge determines the terms of your release from jail or further detention.
Where do I go to Court for a Shoplifting Case?
A disorderly persons offense is a municipal court matter, while an indictable crime is a superior court matter that requires a grand jury indictment. A judge decides guilt or innocence in municipal court, whereas a jury decides in superior court. A juvenile accused of shoplifting will go to juvenile court in the Family Division for a disposition of their case.
Whether you are in municipal or superior court, you will need the help of an experienced shoplifting defense attorney to defend you against the charges. You may have one or more defenses to a shoplifting accusation that an attorney can present to the municipal or superior court prosecutor to get a downgraded charge and a lesser sentence, or present to the judge to get the charges dismissed.
Defense Tactics to Get a Dismissal of a Shoplifting Charge
A shoplifting defense attorney at our law firm knows the prosecution must prove that you knowingly and purposely removed items from a store or mall, under-rang merchandise, changed a price tag, or switched containers for a lower price. For this reason, we ask a series of key questions when examining the evidence and facts of the case in order to determine what defenses may present the best option.
Did You Intend to Steal Merchandise?
First and foremost, you must have an intent to steal. And while proving someone’s mental state is complex, a court may presume you meant to steal merchandise concealed on your person in the store. A serious doubt that we can often present pertains to a mistake. You may have accidentally taken an item out of the store, which, if proven, means you had no intent to steal. The burden is on you to establish such a defense.
Can the Prosecutor Meet the Burden of Proof for a Shoplifting Conviction?
A prosecutor must prove that you intended to steal merchandise from a store at the highest level of proof, beyond a reasonable doubt. When the prosecution has not its burden of proof, you may be acquitted of a shoplifting charge. Our lawyers are skilled in raising doubt in a judge or jury’s mind about whether you knowingly and purposefully stole store goods.
Is there Sufficient Evidence to Demonstrate Shoplifting?
One way to raise doubt is to challenge the prosecutor’s evidence. The state must prove you stole something by an eyewitness, police report, or surveillance cameras. For example, the store owner or employee who accused you of shoplifting must testify in court to prove you committed the crime. Without such evidence, the court will likely dismiss the case against you because the state has not met its burden of proof. Sometimes, witnesses do not show up to court, and that may be cause for dismissing the case.
Can we Discredit the Witness Testimony?
Even when a witness does show up, a criminal defense attorney on our team can sometimes cross-examine the witness to discredit them. We may challenge the witness’s ability to have seen you take an item from the store or their lack of truthfulness. For example, a security officer may have a bias that we may uncover. Perhaps a law enforcement officer racially profiled you or made other unprofessional assumptions about your presence in the store. Moreover, a witness’s subjectivity may raise doubt in a judge or jury without objective evidence, such as video surveillance footage.
Was there an Issue with the Self-Checkout Equipment?
A jury may believe you, since it is not unlikely that someone could overlook an item when paying for others, especially at a self-checkout station. You may have dropped something in your shopping bag or mindlessly put it there without realizing it. In other words, there may be just enough doubt in a judge or jury’s mind to dismantle the state’s case.
Did the State Violate Your Rights in the Process?
Finally, the state’s violation of your rights may be cause for a dismissal. As a criminal defendant, you have the right to a speedy trial. When the prosecutor causes delay, your rights may be infringed. For example, the state has a legal obligation to present your attorney with discovery, which means to show you the evidence they plan to present at trial. When they fail to do so promptly, your attorney may ask the judge to dismiss the case.
Additional Options for Lowering a Shoplifting Offense
Barring a dismissal or not guilty verdict, you still may get your shoplifting charges reduced from a disorderly persons offense to a municipal ordinance violation or from a third degree to a fourth degree crime. Better still, you may get probation or diverted into a program to complete your sentence outside of jail or prison.
First-Time Offender Diversion Options in Shoplifting Cases
The Pretrial Intervention program in superior court and the conditional dismissal program in municipal court may be available to avoid a conviction for shoplifting when your charges are for a first-time offense and you have no prior criminal record.
Don’t Miss Out on Defense Opportunities in Your Shoplifting Case in NJ
Without the help of a talented attorney, you may miss defense opportunities, leading to a dismissal or downgrade of your case. You may have options and defenses to avoid a conviction, incarceration, and a criminal record, but exploring the alternatives to a shoplifting charge conviction is critical prior to accepting your sentence without a fight. Don’t miss out on key opportunities that may get you a better result when arrested and charged with shoplifting. Contact Proetta, Oliver, & Fay to get immediate help and a free consultation from a criminal defense attorney on our team for your shoplifting case. Call 609-850-8284 or reach out to us in a chat to learn more.