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Good People Do Dumb Things Sometimes–Shoplifting Is One of Those Things
When folks charged with shoplifting first talk about it with a defense attorney, they often start out by saying, “So, I did something really dumb, and I feel really bad about it…”
It’s interesting. I don’t often hear this prelude from people charged with assault, or drug possession, or criminal mischief, or DUI even, but the results of those crimes can be just as serious, if not more so. I have yet to represent someone in a murder charge, but when I do, I doubt very much that our first meeting will include the client’s sheepish admission that he kinda messed up and feels really bad about it. What is it about shoplifting that makes people feel especially ashamed and remorseful, or just especially willing to admit to those feelings?
Maybe it’s because shoplifting (or “retail theft” under the Utah law) is a crime often committed by younger people who have never been in legal trouble before, and young people are just more used to apologizing to someone (their parents) when they mess up. Maybe it’s because shoplifting often involves an explicit weighing of possible risks and rewards and because the stolen object starts to seem very small and inconsequential when someone gets detained by a security guard and cited by the police, and the civil demand letters arrive in the mail, and the first court date is approaching…. I’m not sure.
Anyway, my response is, Yes, shoplifting is dumb, and the consequences can be serious, but even good people make mistakes–and shoplifting, in the grand scheme of things, is a pretty minor mistake. Now is the time to take a deep breath, weigh your options, and make smart decisions. That single incident does not need to affect your future plans. Don’t ignore your court date. Don’t ignore your demand letters. Don’t just plead guilty at your first court date without speaking with a defense attorney.
The Possible Consequences of Shoplifting (“Retail Theft”) in Utah
The Criminal Part
There are two aspects to a shoplifting case: the civil part and the criminal part. The criminal part is where the State (or City) attorney tries to prove that you committed the crime of Retail Theft. The seriousness of the charge depends on the value of what you are alleged to have stolen (and on prior offenses)–ranging from Misdemeanor B up to a Second Degree Felony (see the my Theft page for a breakdown). A conviction for a minor theft offense probably will not result in any jail time (though it is a possibility). A more likely sentence includes a fine, a required class, maybe probation, and paying back the value of the item.
Perhaps the worst part of a theft conviction is the record of that conviction. Theft is considered a crime of “moral turpitude” which can affect future employment, security clearances, professional licenses, or even school prospects. To remove a conviction from your record requires an “expungement,” but getting an expungement requires several years of waiting. However, if the charges are dismissed, there is no conviction, and the record of your arrest and court case can be expunged in 30 days. For that reason alone, it is important to try and get your charges dismissed, even if the other aspects of the sentence don’t seem too bad.
The Civil Part (the “Civil Demand Letter” and the Civil Suit)
Utah likes businesses. The civil shoplifting statute is one of the ways they show it. There is a special provision of law (Utah Code 78B-3-108) which gives merchants certain “rights” in shoplifting cases. One of those rights makes people who shoplift merchandise liable for actual damages, a penalty (in the amount of the merchandise), and court costs and attorney’s fees.
So often, people who have been accused of shoplifting receive a demand letter from the business, asking for a “penalty” and threatening lawsuit if they don’t get it, even when the business already recovered the merchandise. If the merchant brings an action in court, they may receive both that penalty and any attorney’s fees, which can be very expensive.
Frequently Asked Utah Shoplifting Questions:
I received a “demand letter” in the mail. Do I have to pay it?
You don’t “have to” pay the demand letter, and some defense attorneys may tell their clients to ignore these letters. I think that’s a little dangerous, though, because it risks putting you on the hook for much more money. (read What happens if I ignore the letter? below)
But how can they demand more money when they already got the merchandise back?
Unfortunately, under the Utah law, they’re allowed to ask for a “penalty” in the amount of the merchandise (not to exceed $1000). They can do this even if they received the merchandise back in an undamaged state, or even if you already paid them the value of the merchandise.
What happens if I do ignore the letter?
While it’s possible that the business will decide it’s not worth the trouble to pursue the matter farther, the Utah civil shoplifting law is very favorable to merchants (see Civil Consequences above), which makes ignoring the letter risky.
If the business decides to file a lawsuit, the person accused of shoplifting may be on the hook for attorney’s fees, court costs, and “penalties” which would dwarf the original “demand.” While a civil suit might be too burdensome, most businesses, especially large ones who deal with many shoplifting cases, won’t shy away from an opportunity to make some extra money.
So what should I do to avoid a civil shoplifting suit?
To avoid that risk, one option is to pay the demand letter in exchange for the merchant’s promise not to file a civil suit (get it in writing). Another option is to negotiate with the business for a more reasonable settlement. Of course, the best choice of action depends on the amount of money at stake and on your own resources. Generally, if you hire a criminal defense attorney, that attorney will not represent you in a separate civil lawsuit, but many defense attorneys will help you decide how to handle the demand letter or help you negotiate with the business for a settlement. Feel free to contact me for a free consultation about your situation.
Will my shoplifting case go on my record?
In a word, yes. If you were cited or arrested by a police officer, that initiates a court case, and there will always be a record of that court case unless you get the record expunged.
How do I get my shoplifting charge off my record?
Obviously, it’s best to get the shoplifting charges dismissed or to get acquitted at trial. This means there will never be a “conviction” on the record, and it means that you can apply to get the record of the citation and court case expunged much sooner. For example, if you are convicted of the lowest level of shoplifting–a misdemeanor B–then you must wait 4 years before you can apply to have the record expunged. If you have the charges dismissed, or get acquitted at trial, you can apply to have the record expunged after only 30 days. (read more about Utah Expungements here)
Is a shoplifting conviction really bad for my record?
There are worse things, but it’s certainly not good to have any criminal conviction on your record. Additionally, most courts in Utah and elsewhere consider shoplifting a “crime of moral turpitude” which can have bad consequences on things like gun ownership, immigration, security clearances, and future employment.
What should I do about my shoplifting charge?
Before making any legal decisions, you should contact a local Utah shoplifting defense attorney. I offer a free initial consultation, so it won’t cost you anything to discuss your options and decide how you want to proceed. Contact me to set up an appointment or just ask me a question. A shoplifting charge doesn’t have to mess up your future, and, as long as you handle it smartly, it shouldn’t. Good luck.
How much does it cost if I decide to hire a defense attorney to represent me?
It really depends on the case, as retail theft can be charged as anything from a Misdemeanor B to a 3rd Degree Felony. Depending on the specific attorney, the representation arrangement, and the charge level, the attorney fees could be anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Many lawyers (including myself) offer payment plans. Even if you’re worried you can’t afford an attorney, I suggest getting in touch to discuss your options. It can’t hurt.