Is shoplifting really that serious?

This article takes an in-depth look at shoplifting, including its potential ramifications.

When most people think of shoplifting, they probably envision one or more teenagers pocketing the latest video game or a cute outfit they can't afford. Even though it may not be legal, people don't necessarily consider it a major offence, and some may even see it as a rite of passage.

What's the big deal with shoplifting? After all, it's a victimless crime and stores have insurance. Right? The truth is that shoplifting is theft. Whether store security or an employee stops an individual, if he or she is caught stealing, or attempting to steal something, what happens next could have a profound effect on that person's future.

If the store decides not to call the police

The decision to call the police rests with the store. Depending on the circumstances, the store may simply ban an alleged shoplifter from entering the store for a certain amount of time. The "Notice Prohibiting Entry" outlines the length of time a person may not enter the store and the consequences of violating the notice. In most cases, a violation results in arrest, charges and fines in accordance with the Trespass Act. The arrest doesn't require a warrant under these circumstances.

In addition, the store retains the right to sue a shoplifter. The store may provide either a demand letter or a "Notice of Intended Legal Action" to the individual. Ordinarily, the demand is for the time and effort the store went through with regard to the incident. In many cases, this amounts to about $500. However, it would probably cost the store more to file a lawsuit than the amount they ask for; so many people simply ignore these notices.

If the store decides to call the police

On the other hand, the store may decide to call the police. If that happens, the alleged shoplifter will most likely face charges that will be dependent upon the value of the goods -- either under $5,000 or over $5,000. In either case, the Crown must prove that the individual charged committed the crime, and that he or she intended to take or took the item (or items) with the intention of not paying for it (or them). If the prosecutor proves this beyond a reasonable doubt, the individual could face the following penalties:

  • Absolute or conditional discharge
  • Probation
  • Fines
  • Conditional sentence
  • Jail time
  • Diversion
  • Alternative measures

Depending on the circumstances, such as whether the individual is a first-time offender, it may be possible to avoid a criminal record through diversion, alternative measures such as community service, or an absolute or conditional discharge.

Facing shoplifting charges

Any criminal charges, including those for shoplifting, require attention. It would be a mistake to simply plead guilty or ignore the charges. A criminal record can have several unintended repercussions on an individual's life outside of the potential criminal and civil penalties associated with shoplifting. Challenging the charges could make the difference between avoiding a criminal record and having to live with one. It would more than likely benefit anyone charged with this or other crimes here in British Columbia to seek out the advice and assistance of a lawyer as soon as possible after the incident.