One thing I’ve noticed during my long career working in the criminal justice system is that people get a little bit confused about what exactly shoplifting is. I mean, people have a general understanding that it means “stealing from a store.” However, they don’t always seem to understand that you can be accused – and convicted – of shoplifting without even leaving the store with the merchandise. In fact, there are ways to commit shoplifting while actually having paid for the merchandise.
Let me explain: in Georgia, the shoplifting statute is codified in O.C.G.A. 16-8-14. This code section says that the offense is completed if you:
- Conceal the merchandise. This can mean putting it in your pocket or your purse or under your jacket or in a bag.
- Alter the price tag or any other price marker on the merchandise. This means you can’t take a sharpie and change the number on the price tag, nor can you scratch out a digit you don’t like.
- Swap out the packaging. If you take an expensive item and put it into the package of a cheaper item, even if you pay for it, you’ve still shoplifted. For that matter, there is nothing in the code section that says that it isn’t shoplifting if you take and cheaper item and put it in more expensive packaging, or even in one of equal value. Like, say, something comes in a pack of three: black, red, and blue. You don’t want the blue, so you swap out the blue for the black in another package. This is shoplifting as defined by Georgia law.
- Exchange the price tag or price marker on an item. So – if you swap the tags on two different items and then pay the ‘newer, lower’ price, you’ve still shoplifted.
- “Wrongfully causes the amount paid to be less than the merchant’s stated price for the merchandise.” This is kind of a catch-all provision, but it includes a lot of things that otherwise law abiding folks might do, such as using your friend’s employee discount. Both you and your friend could be accused of shoplifting in that case.
Shoplifting is generally a misdemeanor, punishable by the ‘standard’ misdemeanor range of punishment, that is, a fine of up to a thousand dollars and up to 12 months in jail. If you’ve shoplifted more than $500.00, it is a felony right off the bat and you could be sentenced up to 10 years in jail. While you may get some slack with a first conviction, the penalties add up quickly. With the second offense, the fine is a minimum of $500.00, which cannot be waived or suspended by the court.
The third conviction is even more severe. A third shoplifting conviction has a mandatory minimum jail time of thirty days. The only other option is monitored house arrest for 120 days. The judge’s hands are tied – this cannot be “suspended, probated, deferred, or withheld.” The legislature takes shoplifting very seriously, and repeat offenders should beware.
The fourth conviction is a felony, no questions asked. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never stolen anything more valuable than a pack of gum – if this is your fourth time up at bat, you’re a felon and could go to jail for up to ten years.
If you think these penalties are harsh, and perhaps out of proportion, there is a simple response: if you don’t do any of the things on the list in this article, you won’t have to worry about it.
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes, and not as an opinion about your particular case. No lawyer can advise you about your case without talking to you about the specific details.