Shoplifting (Script 202)
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What is shoplifting?
Shoplifting is stealing something from a store, which is a criminal offense. You shoplift if you intend to take something that doesn’t belong to you from a store without paying for it, and you do so, or try to.
If you shoplift, a store security officer may stop you and call the police. You may be arrested, taken to the police station, and charged with a crime. The actual charge depends on the value of what you stole. If it’s $5000 or less, the charge is “Theft under $5000”. If the value is over $5000, the charge is “Theft over $5000”. The police will search, fingerprint, and photograph you. And they will give you a date when you must go to court.
What must the prosecutor prove to convict you? What can you do?
In court, the prosecutor, (also called the crown counsel or crown), must prove beyond a reasonable doubt where and when the shoplifting happened. The prosecutor must also prove that you:
- are the person who committed the crime,
- intended to take the item without paying for it, and
- took the item, or tried to take it.
If the prosecutor proves all these things, the judge will convict you. To prove them, the prosecutor will have witnesses – normally the store security officer and the police officer that arrested you – tell the court (or testify) about what they saw you do. They testify under oath, which means they promise to tell the truth. You can question, or cross-examine, each witness.
After the prosecutor finishes, you – and your witnesses, if you have any – can tell the court what happened. To do this, you must take an oath promising to tell the truth, and then give evidence as a witness. For example, perhaps you paid for the item and the store security officer didn’t see you pay. In that case, you could show the court your receipt. Or perhaps you got distracted and forgot you had the item when you left the store. If you have any witnesses who saw what happened and who can support your story, you can call them to testify, or give evidence. They must promise to tell the truth. You then question them about what they know. When you and your witnesses finish giving evidence, the prosecutor can question, or cross-examine, you and them.
Lastly, you and the prosecutor summarize your positions by making submissions to the court. For more information, check script 211, called “Defending Yourself against a Criminal Charge”, and script 212, called “Pleading Guilty to a Criminal Charge”.
What are the penalties?
If a judge convicts you, penalties for this offence can include one or more of the following things:
- Probation (you must follow certain conditions for a set time).
- An absolute or conditional discharge – a penalty that gives first offenders a second chance with probation-like conditions. You don’t get a criminal record.
- Diversion or alternative measures (you can avoid a record – if it’s your first offence, you admit the offence, and you pay your debt to the community by, for example, doing community service for several hours or writing letters of apology, or both). If you successfully complete the community service, the prosecutor will stay, or drop, the charge.
- Restitution (you must pay for the item).
- A fine, plus an automatic victim surcharge. You can ask the judge to find you in default of the surcharge if you cannot pay it. Then the judge can sentence you to one day in jail instead of the surcharge. But you don’t actually go to jail. Instead, the time you are in court counts as the day in jail.
- A conditional sentence – like a jail term, but you serve it in the community with probation-like conditions.
- A jail term.
For details on penalties, check script 203, called “Conditional Sentences, Probation and Discharges”.
Under Section 334(b) of the Criminal Code, for a theft where the value does not exceed $5,000, the maximum fine is $2000, and the maximum jail term is 2 years. As well, you must pay a victim fine surcharge. For summary offences, the surcharge is $100; for indictable offences, it’s $200. If your sentence includes a fine, you must pay another 15% of the fine, or a higher amount if the judge orders it.
For a first conviction, a judge will usually put you on a form of probation (a conditional discharge or a suspended sentence) that forbids you from going back to the same store for a year. The judge may also fine you several hundred dollars.
You may also get a criminal record. That can prevent you from traveling to other countries, getting certain jobs, being bonded (which some jobs require), and applying for citizenship. Check script 205, called “Criminal Records and Applying for a Record Suspension”, for more information.
If it is your first offence and the value of the item is small, ask the judge for a discharge or ask the prosecutor for diversion (or alternative measures). If you meet the conditions of the discharge or if you complete the alternative measures, you will not get a criminal record. For more on discharges, check script 203, called “Conditional Sentences, Probation and Discharges”. For more on diversion, check script 212, called “Pleading Guilty to a Criminal Charge”.
The legal issues for this offense can be complex and a conviction can seriously harm you. If you are charged with this offense, you should talk to a lawyer.
Shoplifting and alarming, or scary, notices
Shoplifting is a civil offense—as well as a crime. Stores are normally open to the public, but they are also private places. Store owners can stop anyone they want from entering their store (as long as they don’t violate the BC Human Rights Code). For example, a store owner can stop people who have stolen from the store from entering the store again.
If store security catches you shoplifting, they may not call police right away. Instead, they may give you a “Notice Prohibiting Entry”. They may make you sign this notice. Then they will release you. They may also tell the police what happened.
The notice will say you cannot enter the store for a certain time (usually a year). It warns that if you do enter the store, you may be arrested without warrant, charged with an offence, and fined under the Trespass Act. But that’s not likely. Normally, security will just stop you from entering the store or remove you from the store. Still, if you get this type of notice, you should stay away from the store for the time the notice says.
Store security may also give you a “Notice of Intended Legal Action”. It will say that the store will sue you for various expenses. You may also get a demand letter in the mail. Sometimes this comes after criminal court case is finished. The letter will demand that you pay a certain amount, about $500, for the store’s investigative and administrative costs.
A store can sue a shoplifter, but the amount of money a court would order in most cases is so low that it would almost never make sense to sue. It would cost the store much more to sue than what it could recover. So you can normally ignore these notices and demand letters. Whether you pay the amount the store demands does not affect whether the prosecutor charges you with shoplifting. Nor does your payment normally affect the sentence (penalty) a judge could give you, though a judge could consider it.
Help for women
The Elizabeth Fry Society has counselors to meet with women in a confidential session to assess what is best for them. Individual sessions, group therapy, and workshops are available. The counselor can also provide written reports for courts. In the lower mainland, call 604.520.1166 and elsewhere in BC, call 1.888.879.9593. Other services it offers are volunteer support, information seminars, and referral services. Some services are free; others have a fee on a sliding scale.
[updated July 2017]
The above was last reviewed for accuracy by Jordan Allingham and Paul Briggs, and edited by John Blois.
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