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Shoplifting charges can be more serious than you might think

On Behalf of | Oct 22, 2020 | Criminal Defense

Most people think of shoplifting as a relatively minor crime. In some cases, that’s true – but not always. In fact, it can be charged as a felony, resulting in years of prison time for those who are convicted. And thanks to joint efforts between major retailers and lobbying groups, significant changes to shoplifting laws have either been passed or debated in 18 states – including here in Alabama.

The changing laws, increasing penalties and inconsistent charging decisions by prosecutors all demonstrate the importance of seeking experienced legal help if you’ve been accused of shoplifting.

Lobbying groups defeat bill on Alabama felony shoplifting threshold

In most states, one of the main factors separating misdemeanor and felony shoplifting charges is the value of the merchandise stolen. But in many cases, thresholds were set decades ago and have not increased with inflation. In Alabama, for instance, you can be charged with felony shoplifting if the merchandise stolen was worth $500 or more. In today’s economy, that’s not a very high dollar amount to meet.

Last year, state legislators proposed a bill that would have raised that threshold to $2,500, but the bill was defeated due to heavy lobbying by the Alabama Retail Federation. Like similar groups in other states, the ARF is funded by retailer contributions.

There is nothing wrong with retailers wanting to protect their economic interests, per se, but many of these same companies have been touting themselves as supportive of criminal justice reform efforts that would fight against mass incarceration and end racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Keeping felony thresholds artificially low appears to be in direct conflict with those goals.

Other factors can lead to increased charges

Even if the dollar value of items stolen is low, alleged shoplifters can still face felony charges in some states for other aggravating factors. For instance, someone previously caught (or suspected of) shoplifting at certain stores may be banned from coming back to that store. If they do come back and get caught shoplifting again, they can face felony charges that include “trespassing.”

There is also considerable controversy over labels like “organized retail theft,” which can lead to more serious criminal charges. The idea is based on a narrative that certain shoplifters work in groups to strategically steal items and profit by reselling them to others. While this likely does occur in certain cases, the definition of organized retail theft varies by state and can be ambiguous.

Discuss your charges with a criminal defense attorney

Shoplifting can be a minor offense, but not always. Moreover, having a previous conviction on your record can make it much more difficult to find a job or good housing, and can also lead to more serious consequences if you are ever criminally charged again in the future.

For all these reasons and more, it is in your best interests to consult with an experienced and aggressive criminal defense attorney about your case, your rights and your legal options.