Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Explains Shoplifting Charges in Virginia
What is shoplifting in Virginia?
There are two types of charges typically seen in shoplifting cases. The first are your standard Petit Larceny or Grand Larceny charges. If someone takes an item from a store worth under $1,000 (even if it's worth $999), that is Petit Larceny, which carries a possible jail sentence of 12 months. If someone takes an item worth $1,000 or more, that is Grand Larceny, and it carries a possible punishment of up to 20 years in prison.
Those charges are typically used in a case where someone goes into a store, grabs something off the shelf, then takes it outside without paying. There is, however, a second code section that deals with concealing merchandise.
Va. Code § 18.2-103 states:
Whoever, without authority, with the intention of converting goods or merchandise to his own or another's use without having paid the full purchase price thereof, or of defrauding the owner of the value of the goods or merchandise:
- Willfully conceals or takes possession of the goods or merchandise of any store or other mercantile establishment
- Alters the price tag or other price marking on such goods or merchandise, or transfers the goods from one container to another
- Counsels, assists, aids or abets another in the performance of the above acts
When the value of the goods is less than $1,000, will be guilty of Petit Larceny
When the value of the goods is $1,000 or more, will be guilty of Grand Larceny
The willful concealment of goods or merchandise of any store or other mercantile establishment, while still on the premises thereof, shall be prima facie evidence of an intent to convert and defraud the owner thereof out of the value of the goods or merchandise.
The shoplifting code section explained:
Let's look through this statute and break it down. The first part uses a bunch of language to describe taking something from a store without permission. The statute requires intent to do so, meaning accidents don't count (we'll address that below). Then it goes on to explain the three ways a person can be found guilty of theft under the statute:
- Willfully conceals. An example of this is a person going into a store, grabbing something off the shelf, and placing it in their purse or pocket. If they do this, they can be charged under this shoplifting code section. There are many defenses available to these charges. And it's not unheard of for police to charge this before a person even leaves the store. If you're facing a theft charge for concealing, speak with an experienced Theft Lawyer to discuss your options.
- Altering the price tag is self-explanatory. Imagine if someone went into a store, pulled the price tag off a bag of oranges, and placed that tag on a television. They then went through the checkout lane and paid a few dollars for the TV. That is an example of shoplifting under this code section. If the TV was worth $1,000 or more, this would be a felony theft charge. If the TV was worth less than $1,000, it would be a misdemeanor charge. This part of the code section also mentions transferring containers. So imagine someone goes into the store and takes a TV worth $1,200 out of the box and puts it in the box of a TV worth $150. They could be found guilty under this part of the statute. If you're facing a theft charge for altering price tags, speak with an experienced Theft Lawyer like Mr. Tyler Bezilla to discuss your options.
- The last way to be charged under this code section is if you counsel, assist, aid, or abet someone who is doing one of the above-mentioned things. This type of charge is commonly seen when there's a “lookout.” For example, imagine Person A goes to the store and swaps a few items from one box to another. Meanwhile, Person B stands at the end of the aisle to keep watch for store employees. Person B could be charged with assisting in the crime under this statute. This isn't always charged correctly either. There can be cases where two people go to the store, and one person steals while the other takes no part in the theft and has no idea what's happening. Police can make mistakes and charge the second person with assisting even though they did nothing wrong and had no idea what was happening. If you're facing a theft charge for assisting someone in stealing, speak with an experienced Theft Lawyer to discuss your options.
- The last part of the statute mentions prima facie evidence. This means a fact which alone may sustain a conviction. In other words, if the Commonwealth proves someone willfully concealed an item while still in the store, a judge can find the defendant guilty without further proof. This doesn't mean the case is over. The Commonwealth may have it wrong, or they may not have proven the concealment to the degree necessary. There are still defenses available. Just because a store has video cameras doesn't mean these are open and shut cases. Often, those cameras are blurry or distorted and don't give a clear view of what happened. If you're facing a theft charge, speak with an experienced Theft Lawyer to discuss your options.
What if I forgot something in my cart?
This is a common fear many people have. What if they went shopping, went through the checkout line, then got to their car and realized they had an item in their pocket or their cart that wasn't paid for? We're all human. We don't go to the store for a relaxing visit. Often, we're running to the store after a long day's work or on a busy weekend just trying to get errands done. If this happens, you can be charged with a theft crime. But you have defenses available! The Commonwealth must prove you forgot that item willfully. They must prove you intended to permanently deprive the store of their goods. Just because they can charge you, doesn't mean you're guilty. If this terrible situation happens to you, call and speak with an experienced Theft Lawyer to discuss your options.
Can store employees detain me?
Yes! Most big box stores have a team of people called Loss Prevention Officers. These are not real police officers, but they are permitted under statute to detain suspected shoplifters. Va. Code § 18.2-105.1 states “a merchant, agent or employee of the merchant, who has probable cause to believe that a person has shoplifted…on the premises of the merchant, may detain such a person for a period not to exceed one hour pending arrival of a law-enforcement officer.” Just because you are detained, doesn't mean you've lost your rights. You do not have to speak with them, answer their questions, or give any explanation whatsoever. And you shouldn't! These loss prevention officers are not your friends, they will not cut you a break, and they will be at the court date if you get charged.
What if the store employee used violence?
They are not allowed to use unreasonable force to detain a shoplifter. If they used force solely to hurt someone, that is a violation of the law.
What if the store employee promises to drop the charges?
It's a common tactic for these loss prevention officers to try to negotiate for confessions. They may ask you to confess and return the goods in exchange for no theft charges. Remember, they do not decide if theft charges are filed. When the police arrive, they will charge you and use your confession in court. Do not speak with them or answer questions. Wait until you are represented by an experienced Theft Attorney before you make any statements.