Being charged with shoplifting for the first time is a frightening situation to find oneself in. Many large department stores (e.g. Macy’s, Bloomingdales, JCPenney), retail chains and malls (e.g. Westfield Garden, Willowbrook, Short Hills) have loss prevention staff who use aggressive tactics when dealing with shoplifters. It’s important for first-time shoplifters to know their rights and how to handle the situation as best they can to minimize the consequences.
What to Do When Charged with Shoplifting in New Jersey
- Don’t Admit Anything. A manager, store associate or security/loss prevention staff will try to get a person to confess—inadvertently or otherwise—to having intended to shoplift. If that happens, this confession (and anything else that is said) can be used against the accused later in a criminal or civil case. As such, anyone accused of shoplifting should admit to nothing; in fact, it’s best to say as little as possible.
- Request an attorney. The most important thing a person accused of shoplifting for the first time should say is that he/she wishes to speak to an attorney.
- Follow police instructions. Although it doesn’t happen every time, stores will often call the police to help deal with shoplifters. If that happens, do what the officers ask in terms of reasonable requests (for example if they ask for your ID – but again, don’t make any admissions and don’t sign anything). Getting argumentative and belligerent with an officer can only make the process worse.
What Stores Want from a First-Time Shoplifter
Each store, retail chain, and mall will handle shoplifters differently. One store might ban the person from ever shopping there again. Others will demand the accused shoplifter pay legal fees and other costs associated with coming to court. If the shoplifter is successful in getting away with merchandise, the store will likely seek restitution (have shoplifter pay them back) for the stolen goods. Many stores will employ a combination of such tactics.
It’s worth noting that most people who get stopped attempting to shoplift never successfully leave the store with the merchandise. In such cases, the store may simply demand the accused to pay a civil fine and insist that he/she never return.
Shoplifting and the Civil Demand Letter
Regardless of whether one was taken into custody by police, it is typical for stores—especially large chains and malls—to send what is known as a civil demand letter. This is a letter to the accused shoplifter demanding payment of a civil fine, as well as money for any goods stolen. They may also demand the accused cover the cost of legal fees and/or fees for its loss prevention staff.
This letter is legal and the store has every right to make these demands. In most cases, a person who agrees to pay this will not have to deal with any further criminal or civil proceedings. However, a person should not take action without first speaking to an attorney.
Paying the Costs of Shoplifting
There are a lot of costs associated with shoplifting, even a first-time offense. On top of a civil fine, stores may also seek restitution for stolen goods, reimbursement for legal fees and/or for costs associated with their loss prevention departments. On top of that, the courts may also order the defendant to pay a fine upon conviction. That’s not to mention the cost of a legal defense from either a private attorney or the public defender (see below).
A first-time shoplifter can easily be overwhelmed by all these possible costs. Those who hire a private attorney can be in a better position, however. An attorney will be able to prepare his/her clients by letting them know what certain potential costs they can expect, based on the circumstances of the case. In most cases, there is a few months’ time between being charged and the resolution of the case, which will give the client time to save up some money and/or borrow funds in advance.
For clients who are hit with a fine by the judge, an attorney can ask the judge to put a payment plan in place based on the individual’s financial situation.
Hiring an Attorney vs. The Public Defender
Those accused of shoplifting for the first time who have never broken the law before may be tempted to request a public defender to help them fight charges. This may be the best course of action for some, but it is probably worth hiring a private criminal defense attorney for the following reasons:
- Dedication to the case. New Jersey has many excellent public defenders. However, public defenders are, by nature of their position, overwhelmed with cases and can rarely dedicate the same level of time and focus on a single case as a private attorney.
- Requirement to Qualify. Individuals must apply for the right to representation by a public defender. The court will ultimately decide who will get one by examining defendant’s financial assets to determine if they meet the indigency standards. Not everyone who applies will be accepted, and the more money one earns the more likely he/she will be denied.
- Public defenders are not free. Most people assume that having a public defender in their corner will mean they won’t have to pay any legal fees. They are wrong. There are certain costs associated with having a public defender represent someone and the defendant will be expected to pay those regardless of outcome.
First-Time Shoplifting Charges and Jail Time
Many people hear that first-time shoplifters rarely go to jail when convicted. There is some truth to this: shoplifting is one of several offenses that carries a presumption of non-incarceration. Ultimately it depends on many factors. For starters, the greater the value of the goods stolen, the more likely one will be sentenced to jail. Stealing goods valued at $200 or more is a felony offense; moreover, if the goods are valued at more than $500 a person could be looking at up to five years in prison.
Even if the goods have very little value, a person could still be facing potential jail time if he/she has a prior criminal record. Prosecutors and judges, upon seeing a defendant with prior convictions—even if they are for petty disorderly persons offenses—will automatically be tougher on him/her than they would if the person had a clean record.
Those with a clean criminal record who are charged with shoplifting for the first time in New Jersey are more likely to avoid jail time, but it is best to have an attorney’s advice to increase one’s chances. For example, an attorney can negotiate a plea deal with prosecutors and the store to have the charges reduced to a municipal violation. Alternatively, an attorney can argue for the defendant to enter a conditional discharge or pre-trial intervention program, which will result in the charges being dismissed upon successful completion.
Expungements and First-Time Shoplifting Charges
Even if a shoplifting conviction is the first and only thing on a person’s criminal record, he/she should consider getting the offense expunged. A criminal record for even the smallest offense can impact a person’s employment opportunities, access to loans, college or other higher-learning applications, and more.
The same is true if a person manages to have the charges reduced or dropped. Simply being charged with a crime puts a person “in the system.” That means he/she has had his/her fingerprints and mugshot taken. This, and the record of the arrest, can be accessed by employers during a background check and can result in difficult questions and lost opportunities. The good news is that a person can apply to have an arrest record expunged. A person can also have record of a pre-trial intervention expunged.
However, there is a limit to who is eligible to have a criminal record expunged in New Jersey. For example, if a first-time shoplifting charge is results in a sixth disorderly persons conviction or a second felony conviction, then that person will no longer be eligible to have their criminal record expunged—his/her criminal record will truly be permanent!
What Should I Do About My First-Time Shoplifting Charge?
If you or someone you love is facing a first-time shoplifting charge in New Jersey, contact the Rosenblum Law Firm right away for help. Our skilled criminal defense attorneys have helped many clients in many difficult situations just like yours. We can fight to have your charges reduced or dropped, minimize the costs, reduce the risk of jail time, and avoid having a permanent criminal record. Email the Rosenblum Law Firm or call 888-815-3649 today for a free consultation about your case.