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Shoplifting Laws in California

Penal Code 459.5 PC Shoplifting Laws, Penalties, and Defenses

California Penal Code 459.5 is the statute used by prosecutors to charge someone with a misdemeanor case of shoplifting, which is the crime of entering an open business with the intent to steal merchandise and it is valued at $950 or less.

Shoplifting under this statute is always misdemeanor offense that carries a penalty of up to 6 months in a county jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.

Shoplifting Laws in California – Penal Code 459.5 PC
PC 459.5 shoplifting is a misdemeanor crime when the value of the stolen items is $950 or less.

If the defendant has one of more prior theft related convictions, then the penalties will increase.

The traditional case of shoplifting involves someone walking into a store and putting some items under their clothes and walking out without paying.

For example, a person enters a store in the mall with intent to steal certain brand of clothing items.

A PC 459.5 shoplifting charge can also be filed against someone who walks into a convenience store with the intent to steal some alcohol.

As you can see, the critical element of the crime in a shoplifting case is “intent” which is discussed below

If arrested or given a citation for shoplifting by police officers, you will typically receive a “civil demand letter” saying you must pay the retailed restitution or you will be sued in court.

Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys are providing a more detailed review of the laws below.

What is Legal Definition of Shoplifting?

As noted, the theft crime of shoplifting is defined under California Penal Code 459.5 PC which says the following:

  • “Shoplifting is legally defined as entering an open commercial business with the intent to commit larceny during regular business hours and the value of the property stolen, or intended to be stolen, is $950 or less.

If you enter a commercial business with intent to commit theft when they are closed, then you will be charged with the more serious crime of Penal Code 459 PC burglary.

Elements of the crime

Therefore, based on this legal definition of PC 459.5 shoplifting, you can be found guilty of shoplifting if the prosecution can prove all of the elements of the crime below, beyond a reasonable doubt, listed below:

  • you entered a business that was open to the public,
  • during their normal operating business hours, and
  • you had the intent to steal merchandise and it was worth $950 or less.

Readers should note that it's a common myth that anyone who is accused of shoplifting has to take the merchandise outside the store before they can be charged with shoplifting.

Legal Definition of Shoplifting in California
Shoplifting is defined as entering an open business with the intent to steal merchandise.

As you can see from the legal definition, the crucial factor for a prosecutor to prove their case is the defendant's criminal intent.

This raises the obvious question of how can a prosecutor prove what you were thinking when you entered the store?

This factor is normally proven by the defendant's behavior once they enter the business.

Shoplifters have common techniques and there are also common signals and clues they have an intent to steal something. This is used to prove intent and convict them

As noted, if somebody enters a store after business hours with the intent to steal, then they will typically face charges under other laws like Penal Code 459 PC burglary or Penal Code 602 trespassing.

The related California crimes for PC 459.5 shoplifting are Penal Code 484 PC petty theft and Penal Code 487 PC grand theft.

What Are the Penalties for a Conviction?

As noted, PC 459.5 shoplifting is typically a misdemeanor crime that carries the following penalties if you are convicted:

  • a maximum up of 6 months in county jail, and
  • a fine of up to $1,000.

If you are convicted of stealing merchandise from an open business that is valued at over $950, then you will be charged under a separate statute of Penal Code 487 PC grand theft.

Grand theft could be charged as a felony crime, and if you are convicted, the penalties include up to 3 years in jail and a maximum fine of $10,000.

Felony penalties will be sentenced by the judge if you have a prior conviction for any of the following offenses:

  • a sex crime requiring PC 290 sex offender registration;
  • a sex crime involving a minor under 14, or use of force, violence, threats;
  • Penal Code 191.5 PC gross vehicular manslaughter;
  • Penal Code 187 PC murder, attempted murder, or solicitation;
  • any serious or violent felony penalized by life in prison or death.

What is a Civil Demand Letter?

Under California Penal Code 490.5 PC, business owners who are the victims of shoplifting can make a civil demand for damages.

This type of civil demand letter states you are required to pay restitution to the business owner for the stolen merchandise or items that were damaged.

Normally, civil demand letters are written and sent by a law firm that was retained by the business owner and they will request up to $500 recovery cost.

What Are the Best Defenses for Shoplifting?

In order to be charged with Penal Code 459.5 shoplifting, as noted above, the prosecutor will have to show a criminal intent to steal merchandise when you entered the business.

This means we might be able to make a reasonable argument that you didn't intent to steal when you entered the business, but this approach could result in a petty theft conviction with lesser penalties.

Another potential defense strategy includes making an argument that you made an honest mistake and had plans to pay for the merchandise.

Perhaps you put the items temporarily in your bag, but just forgot it was there. This is called the mistake defense.

Best Defenses for Shoplifting
Contact our firm to review all the details and best legal options to resolve your shoplifting case.

If shoplifting cases where guilt is not in doubt, there are other strategies where we could resolve your case without a conviction on your record, such as:

Diversion program: if you are accepted into a diversion program, then you will be required to follow certain conditions set be the judge, such as a requirement to complete community service hours and pay full restitution to the victim.

Once you successfully complete the diversion program, your charges will be dropped and you will not have a conviction on your record;

Civil compromise: this is a legal agreement between you and the business who was victimized when their merchandise was stolen. A civil compromise means you agree to repay the costs suffered by the victim due to the theft or attempted theft.

In exchange, the business owner will make an agreement to not pursue prosecution against you.

Another strategy is prefiling intervention where we can negotiate with law enforcement and the prosecutor to avoid formal filing criminal charges before court. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County and you can contact our firm for an initial consultation at (877) 781-1570, or fill out our contact form.

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