What is shoplifting?
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What is shoplifting?
Shoplifting is stealing retail merchandise – like food, clothing, or electronics – from a store (but not as an employee working at that store). In Canada, shoplifting is theft under section 334 of the Criminal Code, and is not a separate offence. However, shoplifting is often treated somewhat differently by prosecutors and courts, and it raises some questions. I explain what theft is in another FAQ.
Is it shoplifting if I didn’t leave the store?
Yes, you can commit shoplifting without leaving the store. In fact, you commit shoplifting as soon as you pick up an item with intent to steal it from the store. Of course, since no one can read minds, shoplifting is proven by showing that the accused took an item and left or tried to leave the store without trying to pay for it. Most shoplifters are arrested as they are trying to leave the store, or immediately after.
Will I get caught shoplifting?
People are caught shoplifting every day. Some shoplifters walk through a store placing items in their cart as though shopping as normal, but place other items in their clothes, a reusable shopping bag, a purse, or a backpack when they think no one is looking. They then pay for the items in their cart, but make no attempt to pay for the hidden item. This is a bad idea. Security guards are often watching through high-definition video cameras that move and zoom in, watching you take and hide items, and waiting for you to go through the checkout without attempting to pay. Whenever you shoplift, you risk being caught.
What happens if I get caught shoplifting?
If you get caught shoplifting, you will likely be arrested, charged with theft, and released by the police on an appearance notice, which requires you to get your fingerprints taken and attend court on specified dates.
However, this is not always the case. Security guards have been known to give some shoplifters warnings, but this appears to be relatively rare. Also, while it is rare in shoplifting cases, you may be taken to a police station and detained until you can have a bail hearing, especially if you have outstanding warrants.
In most cases, if you are caught shoplifting, this is what will happen:
- As you leave or try to leave the store, a security guard will confront and arrest you for theft. The security guard will tell you that they saw you take items and leave without attempting to pay for them – either on the store’s video cameras, directly with their own eyes, or both. The security guard might ask to search your bag or do a pat-down search of your body.
- The security guard will then detain you in the store while they call the police and wait for them to arrive. Many larger retail stores, grocery stores, and malls have security offices where they will detain you. The security guard might ask you questions while you wait. They may also show you the security footage of you shoplifting.
- Once the police arrive, they will arrest you, and they should read you your Charter rights and caution you that you are not required to say anything and what you do say may be used against you as evidence in court. The police will take a statement from the security guard, and will likely ask you to give a statement as well.
- The police will take you through the store or mall and into their police vehicle in the parking lot, where you will likely sit with them while they do paperwork.
- The police will likely release you on an appearance notice, which will tell you when and where you must attend for identification (fingerprinting and photographs), and for court.
From there, you will be in the hands of the court. I have other FAQs about what to expect in criminal court. A defence lawyer can help you navigate this process.
Can I beat a shoplifting charge?
Like any other crime, people are often charged with theft that they did not commit, or which the crown prosecutor cannot prove they committed. For example, the police may have got the wrong person, and the crown prosecutor may be unable to prove that it was you who shoplifted. Or perhaps you genuinely believed that the item you are accused of stealing was yours, which means you are not guilty based on “colour of right”.
I discuss colour of right and other theft defences in a separate FAQ.
Shoplifting matters rarely go to trial. In many shoplifting cases, the accused is clearly visible shoplifting on security camera footage, and it is often clear that they are sneakily hiding some items and not others. This security footage can be used as evidence in court to convict the accused. Chances are, if you are facing a shoplifting charge, then you will either succeed in having your charge referred to a diversion program, or you will plead guilty.
Is shoplifting serious?
Being charged with any crime is serious, and it is important to remember that there is no separate shoplifting crime. If you are convicted of shoplifting, then you will have a criminal record for theft.
Getting and keeping a job with a criminal record for theft can be challenging because many employees do not trust people who steal. It can also make travelling difficult, especially to the United States, where you may not be allowed entry because theft is considered a “crime of moral turpitude.”
That said, more minor shoplifting charges are sometimes treated less seriously than many other theft charges, at least in Alberta. If you are charged with shoplifting for stealing a few groceries while in a financial bind, or some clothing items that you could not afford, and you have no criminal record, then your defence lawyer may be able to persuade a prosecutor to refer your charge to a diversionary program, like the Alternative Measures Program. This will allow you to have the theft charge dropped if you complete certain conditions, like making a donation to a charity, writing an essay, attending counselling, and doing community service. I have other FAQs about getting charges dropped.