Being arrested for retail theft is not something that should be taken lightly, as there can be severe penalties, but with the help of an experienced retail theft attorney it is possible that charges can be lessened or potentially dropped.
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Retail Theft: Detained by Store Security vs. Arrested by Police

If you are caught or accused of shoplifting, you should know that store security guards and employees do not have the same legal limitations as police officers. They are permitted to detain suspects “in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable length of time.” Being detained in a store does not mean you are under arrest; you cannot be arrested unless the police are involved. Furthermore, security guards do not need to read a person their rights or wait for a minor’s parent or guardian before they begin questioning. Typically, after the theft has occurred, the suspect is banned from entering the store or mall. It is ultimately under the discretion of the store to decide if the police should become involved, but you can be charged with theft even if you never actually left the store, as long as intent to steal can be proven.

Criminal Penalties for Shoplifting

If the store does decide to involve the police, criminal punishments vary based on the dollar amount and severity of the crime. In the state of Illinois, retail theft can be classified and punished in the following ways:

  • Shoplifting property with a total combined value of $300 or less is a Class A misdemeanor, and can result in the penalty of fines up to $2,500 and up to one year of imprisonment;
  • Shoplifting property with a total combined value of $300 or less, when the crime is executed via an emergency exit, OR if the convicted person has any prior convictions of theft or related crimes is a Class 4 felony, and can result in fines up to $25,000 and between one and three years of imprisonment;
  • Shoplifting property with a total combines value of $300 or less, when the crime is executed via an emergency exit, AND if the convicted person has any prior convictions of theft or related crimes is a Class 3 felony, and can result in fines up to $25,000 and between two and five years of imprisonment;
  • Shoplifting property with a total combined value of more than $300 in a single transaction or in separate transactions over a period of one year is a Class 3 felony, and can result in fines up to $25,000 and between two and five years of imprisonment;
  • Shoplifting property with a total combined value of more than $300 in a single transaction or in separate transactions over a period of one year, when theft is executed via the use of an emergency exit is a Class 2 felony, and can result in fines up to $25,000 and between three and seven years of imprisonment.

Civil Penalties for Shoplifting

Criminal punishment isn’t the only option retailers can pursue; there is also the chance they will file a civil suit. Illinois law allows merchants who are victims of retail theft to sue the offender in civil court, and if the offender is a minor his or her parent/guardian is liable. Retailers are able to recover damages for the following:

  • Actual damages equal to the full retail value of the merchandise;
  • An amount no less than $100 nor more than $1,000; and
  • Attorney’s fees and court costs.

Civil Demand Letters

Most large retail chains have an agreement with a law firm to send out “civil demand letters” to everyone that has been caught shoplifting in their store, even if that person was found not guilty or the police were not called. These letters often say that a “fine” must be paid, however, retailers cannot levy fines against a person; only a court can do that. It is possible for the retailers to take you to court but usually the cost to the company is not equal to the cost of the item stolen.

In some cases, the collection agencies and law firms representing retailers request insane sums to cover fees and damages, as well as, become unnecessarily persistent in attempting to collect the fees or damages. In these instances, there have been cases of convicted or alleged shoplifter who pursued civil cases against these agencies. Additionally, civil suits against retailers can possibly be pursued in instances of racial profiling or if the incident results in injury.

Alternatives to Retail Theft Conviction

Being charged with retail theft can potentially have a devastating effect on one’s life, but hiring an experienced criminal lawyer can help protect you from serious legal consequences. Although the results of each case are largely based off of the individual situation, there may be other options available to those charged with retail theft.

Court Supervision

One option is supervision, which is a sentence of “good behavior.” During this time, if the defendant does not receive any new arrests or violate the terms of the supervision, a non-conviction will result. While jail time and a conviction are avoided with supervision, the defendant must wait two years after the supervision has ended to petition the court for an expungement or sealing of their record.

Deferred Prosecution

Another option is deferred prosecution, in which the defendant is required to complete a theft-deterrent program. Once the class is completed the prosecution will dismiss the charges and the defendant’s criminal record can be immediately expunged. Similarly, if a theft-deterrent class is not available, completing a certain number of community service hours may be an alternative.

Charges Dropped

The best-case scenario would be the criminal charges against you are dropped. There are laws that need to be followed throughout the entire process, which begins when the defendant enters the store. If, at any point, the store or the police did something that violated the defendant’s rights as an American citizen, then any evidence gathered after the violation is inadmissible in court. While the violation may have occurred after enough evidence is gathered to make a case against you, the penalties the store or police would have to face for violating your rights often outweigh the benefit of pursuing criminal or civil charges.

Takeaway

A criminal record of theft will have a long-lasting negative impact on your life. If charges have been filed against you, then you should consider hiring a criminal defense attorney. Without one, you will be under-represented and most likely will not get the best possible outcome in your case. You owe it to yourself to at least go out and get a case evaluation. Most criminal attorneys offer free consultations so there is no reason not to.

At Dolci & Weiland, we understand attorney fees are often an unexpected expense, and sometimes it is difficult to decide whether it is necessary to hire a private attorney. The purpose of our free consultation is to provide a detailed case evaluation so you can make an informed decision on how to proceed in preparing your defense.

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