Shoplifting (No. 202)
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Jordan Allingham, Ferguson Allingham, and Paul Briggs, Paul Briggs Law in July 2017.|
Shoplifting is taking (or trying to take) something from a store without paying for it, with the intention of stealing. Learn what to expect if you’ve been charged with shoplifting.
Understand your legal rights
Shoplifting is a criminal offence
Shoplifting is stealing (or trying to steal) something from a store. 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). Shoplifting is a criminal offence.
If you shoplift, a store security officer may stop you and call the police. You may be arrested and charged with a crime.
The actual criminal charge depends on the value of what you stole. If it’s $5,000 or less, the charge is “theft under $5,000”. If the value is over $5,000, the charge is “theft over $5,000”.
In responding to the charge against you, you must decide how to plead. Pleading guilty means you accept responsibility for the crime. Pleading “not guilty” means the court will set a trial.
If you plead guilty or you are convicted at trial, a judge will penalize (sentence) you. You may be put on probation or have to pay a fine (among various possibilities). You could get a criminal record.
Through diversion, you can avoid a criminal record
If it is your first offence and the value of the item is small, you might be able to avoid a criminal record. Your case may be eligible to be dealt with through “alternative measures” (also called diversion) if:
- you have no criminal history,
- you accept responsibility for the crime, and
- you feel sorry about what you’ve done.
If your case is diverted, the court won’t sentence you. Instead, you report to a probation office and follow a program set out for you. The program may include community service work or writing letters of apology. If you complete the diversion program, the criminal charge is stayed (meaning the prosecutor won’t go ahead with the charge against you). This means you won’t get a criminal record. Learn more about diversion in our information on pleading guilty to a criminal charge (no. 212).
If you decide to plead “not guilty”
If you plead not guilty to the charge, the court will set a date for your trial.
At the trial, the prosecutor (also called Crown counsel), must prove you are guilty of the offence beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor must prove 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 the charge, the prosecutor will have witnesses — normally the store security officer and the police officer that arrested you — tell the court (testify) about what they saw. The witnesses must testify under oath, which means they promise to tell the truth. You can question each witness. This is called cross-examining the witness.
After the prosecutor finishes, you have the opportunity to tell the court what happened. To do this, you might testify (give evidence) yourself. You don’t have to. But it may help you make your case. Let’s say you paid for the item and the store security officer didn’t see you pay. In giving your evidence, you could show the court your receipt. Or perhaps you got distracted and forgot you had the item when you left the store. You could explain this to the judge. When you finish giving evidence, the prosecutor can question (cross-examine) you.
If you have any witnesses who saw what happened and who can support your story, you can call them to testify. You ask them questions so they can tell what they know. When your witnesses finish giving evidence, the prosecutor can cross-examine them.
You and the prosecutor then summarize your positions by making submissions to the court.
For more on the process, see our information on defending yourself against a criminal charge (no. 211).
If you are convicted of shoplifting
If a judge convicts you, the penalties for shoplifting can include one or more of the following things:
- A discharge. The judge finds you guilty, but then discharges you instead of convicting you. Your discharge can be absolute (you won’t get a criminal record) or conditional (you won’t get a criminal record if you meet conditions the judge sets).
- A suspended sentence. The judge convicts you but suspends sentencing you, and instead releases you on conditions set out in a probation order.
- A conditional sentence. The judge gives you a jail term, but allows you to serve it in the community as long as you follow certain conditions.
- A fine. The judge sets an amount of money you must pay to the court.
- A restitution order. The judge orders you to pay for the item you stole.
- A jail term. The maximum jail term for theft under $5,000 is two years.
For a first shoplifting 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.
If you are convicted or discharged, you must also pay a victim surcharge. The surcharge is 30% of any fine you got, or if you didn’t get a fine, $100 for a summary (minor) offence. If you do not have money to pay the surcharge, you can ask the judge to find you in default. The judge can then give you a one-day jail sentence. But you may not have to go to jail, as the judge can find that the time you are in court counts as the day in jail.
For more on possible sentences, see our information on conditional sentences, probation, and discharges (no. 203).
If it is your first offence and the value of the item is small, ask the judge for a discharge. A discharge allows you to avoid getting a criminal record, which can prevent you from traveling to other countries, getting certain jobs, and applying for citizenship.
If you receive a shoplifting notice or letter
Shoplifting is a civil offence as well as a crime. Stores are open to the public, but they are also private businesses. 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 prohibit people who have stolen from the store from entering the store again.
If store security catches you shoplifting, they may give you a “notice prohibiting entry”, and make you sign this notice. Then they will release you. They may also tell the police what happened.
The notice typically says 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. That’s not likely to actually happen. Typically, 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 might say the store will sue you for various expenses. You may also get a demand letter in the mail, saying you must pay a certain amount, perhaps $500, for the store’s investigative and administrative costs. Sometimes this comes after the criminal court case is finished.
A store can also sue a shoplifter, but the amount of money a court would order in most cases is so low it would almost never make sense for a store to sue. It would cost the store more to sue than it could recover.
You can normally ignore these notices and demand letters. However, whether or not you pay the amount the store demands does not affect whether the prosecutor charges you with shoplifting. Payment may also not affect your sentence (penalty) upon being convicted of a criminal charge, although a judge could consider it.
Help for women
The Elizabeth Fry Society has counsellors who can help women with support, education and referrals. Counsellors can also provide written reports for courts.
- Telephone: 604-520-1166 in the Lower Mainland
- Toll-free: 1-888-879-9593
- Web: elizabethfry.com
Legal Services Society, the legal aid provider in BC, has publications on how to defend yourself on shoplifting charges and how to represent yourself in a criminal trial.
- Web: legalaid.bc.ca
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