Imagine this: Your grandma who just learned how to use the internet buys you a sweatshirt for your birthday on Amazon. It’s hideous, so you really want to return it, but you don’t want to go through the hassle of shipping. “Just return it to the local department store and get credit,” your mom says. “They have that exact sweater. Just say it was a gift from there.”
Go mom. Great idea! So you try it, but the clerks keep giving you weird looks and disappearing, and it’s not long before a big guy in a security vest tells you that you need to follow him. What the heck is going on? You’re being accused of shoplifting, the man says.
Huh? How is that possible?
Under Illinois shoplifting laws, the blanket term “shoplifting”—also known as retail theft—describes a variety of different criminal behaviors. Returning a product to a store where you didn’t buy it in an attempt to get cash or store credit is one type of shoplifting.
Surprised? You’re not the only one. In fact, it’s completely possible that a citizen could commit the crime of shoplifting without being aware that they were doing something wrong, which is why we decided to put together this guide to the different kinds of retail theft possible under Illinois laws.
Taking away merchandise without paying the full retail price
This is the action most people think of when they think of shoplifting. Whether you hide it in a purse, leave it in your cart, or simply walk out without paying for the item, this is considered a crime.
Tampering with price tags or other labels
Switching the price tag of a higher priced item with a lower priced item, or manipulating any labels the store uses in an attempt to pay less for a product is also considered retail theft.
Switching merchandise from one container to another
This is another common trick for trying to sneak merchandise past the employees of a store. Even if you are caught in the act while on the premises, you can face criminal charges for your actions.
As mentioned above, Illinois also considers false returning of merchandise to be retail theft. In these scams, customers attempt to return items not purchased from the store in order to obtain cash or store credit.
Keeping Merchandise Past the Expiration of a Lease
This is also a form of theft. If you rent merchandise from a retail store, you can be charged with shoplifting for failing to return the item.
Defeating Anti-Theft Devices
Tampering with or otherwise subverting anti-theft devices of a retail store—like magnetic tags and detectors—falls under this charge.
Criminal Penalties for Shoplifting
When compared to other theft crimes like burglary and robbery, merely stealing from a retail store seems relatively benign. The State of Illinois, however, does not share this view. In our state, shoplifters can face serious criminal penalties, including jail time and fines. Shoplifters also may face separate civil penalties from the company stolen from.
The penalties for shoplifting vary, usually depending on the value merchandise stolen and the accused’s criminal history. For retail theft under $300, the charge is a Class A misdemeanor, the most serious level of misdemeanor.
This charge carries fines of up to $2,500 and up to one year imprisonment. If the value is under $300 but the perpetrator uses an emergency exit, the charge is upgraded to a Class 4 felony. Fines for this charge can be up to $25,000 and 1 to 3 years of imprisonment.
It’s also considered a Class 4 felony if the perpetrator has been convicted in the pass of theft crimes. If both conditions are present—i.e. a past criminal record and use of emergency exit—the charge becomes upgraded to a Class 3 felony.
Class 3 felony charges may also be issued if the value of the items is greater than $300. This can include all the items in a single incident, or it can be over the course of multiple past transactions. Usually by utilizing video surveillance, stores can build a case against repeat offenders, collecting evidence of the value of items taken over multiple occasions.
Those convicted face fines of up to $25,000 and incarceration between 2 and 5 years. Offenders who use an emergency exit with items valued over $300 face a class 2 felony, which carries the same fee, but includes 3 to 7 years of imprisonment.
Many stores have a policy of holding adult shoplifters responsible with civil penalties as well. Companies will hold the shoplifter liable not only for the retail value of the items, but also a sum of money for damages between $100 and $1,000. In addition, they can charge the shoplifter for their court fees. Often the claims for damages are multiple times the actual retail cost.
Diversion Programs and Plea Bargaining
A strong criminal defense can help many accused individuals negotiate an alternative punishment to imprisonment. Because those arrested for shoplifting are often first time offenders, and because many shoplifters are young adults and teenagers, there are number of first offender programs available. Pretrial diversions and deferred prosecution programs are also sometimes an option.
If these options are not a possibility for the defendant, a plea bargain can sometimes be negotiated. In most plea bargains, you and your attorney make a deal with the prosecution that you will plead guilty in exchange for a reduced charge or a lesser sentence. If you are facing shoplifting charges, it is in your best interest to contact an expert criminal defense as soon as possible.
About The Author:
Howard J. Wise, the owner of the Illinois-based Law Offices of Howard J. Wise & Associates, is a criminal defense attorney who stands ready to assist clients in many different areas of the law, including criminal appeals, DUI, misdemeanors, traffic violations, and felonies. Mr. Wise began his legal career at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office as the assistant state attorney, where he was able to gain unique prosecutorial experience. He then transitioned to criminal defense and currently devotes his practice exclusively to protecting the rights of those accused of crime.