Every year our law firm sees an increase of people being accused of shoplifting during the holiday shopping season. Some people have never been involved in the judicial systems before they had a serious and momentary lapse of judgment. However, many other people I have helped during my career did not commit any crime, but only took actions that appeared to store security to be unlawful.
As a criminal defense lawyer with 20 years of experience, I would like share some tips to avoid misunderstandings that can lead to embarrassment and criminal charges during what should have been a pleasant day shopping.
1. Watch where you put your coat.
Shopping at the mall all day can be workout. Soon you may realize that you need to take off your coat. Make sure your coat is the absolute bottom layer of any pile of merchandise. Just covering the pair of slacks you found on sale or inadvertently placing the coat over the nice scarf you want to buy for Aunt Margaret can get you a personal escort to a back room by a store security officer.
In Virginia, a person can be charged with Grand Larceny (taking items of more than $200 of value) or Petit Larceny (value less than $200) if a person merely conceals merchandise with the intent to steal. If store security sees an item being concealed, they do not have to wait until a shopper passes a cash register or an exit door to make a stop. Often, the shopper will be arrested just on the concealment alone despite the shoppers protestations that they were going to pay for the hidden item. The Commonwealth Attorney will try to prove the intent to steal by circumstantial evidence. After all, the Commonwealth will probably have a witness or video at trial showing that the store’s merchandise is hidden from view by your misplaced coat.
2. Consolidate your shopping bags outside the store
Bags full of fun presents get heavy and cumbersome as the day goes on. However, consolidating bags inside of a store is not a good idea because it instantly arouses the suspicion of store security personnel. Instead, go to the food court or find a bench in the mall area to consolidate your purchases.
3. Carefully review, save, and organize your receipts
Your hands are full and you want to move on to the next store. Before you rush off, make sure the receipt has ALL of the merchandise you purchased listed on it. Place that receipt in a location where you will not lose it. Maybe even take a quick picture of it with your cell phone. Do not lose the receipt because a lost receipt can create a world of trouble. If a shopper paid in cash it will be difficult, if not impossible, to prove that she paid for the items.
Even if you paid with a credit card, without the receipt, your explanation may not be enough for the security guard. You may be stuck contacting the credit card company the following day for proof of your innocence for your upcoming trial.
4. Don’t let your friends, relatives, or children carry your merchandise for you — unless they are also carrying the receipt for the merchandise
Many of the stories I hear from people include the explanation from a relative that the person accused of shoplifting was only holding the bag for the actual purchaser. When families split up in the store to get more accomplished, the person holding the bags may be stopped by security. If they do not have the receipts trouble can ensue. Store security isn’t likely going to page your friend or sister to the back room to show them the receipt. They are simply going to charge you with larceny and make you prove your innocence in court.
5. Remember that cameras are everywhere
If you pick up an item from a shelf and you decide you do not want it, put it back on that shelf. If you select the item and carry it around the store, security believes that the item is 1) going to be purchased or 2) going to be stolen. If you decide that you do not want an item after you have been shopping for other things in a different part of the store, make a special trip to return the unwanted item to the place you found it. For good measure, it is even okay to lift it up so it can be seen clearly by the cameras when you place the item on the shelf or rack where you found it originally.
6. Don’t mess with broken security tags
If a security tag is broken or has fallen off of a high dollar item, pick another of the items with a security tag that is in good condition. If the item is the last of its kind available, have an employee bring it to the cash register. You do not want to be accused of removing or damaging the tag yourself. Damaging security devices or altering price tags are also considered by courts to be evidence of larceny. Don’t take the item and carry it around the store. Store security, who are often looking for easy answers, will think that you are about ready to walk out of the store with it.
7. Be kind to others – and avoid verbal and physical fights
Holiday shopping can be stressful and tiring and may cause your attitude to become edgy. When someone else is not acting appropriately or is downright rude, take a deep breath and take the high road. This is the holiday season. It should be filled with joy and happiness. Don’t let an obnoxious boor cause you to be arrested because you decided to shove back.
8. Be courteous on the road and in the parking lot.
Reckless Driving and Aggressive Driving are misdemeanors in Virginia. Each charge can be punished with jail time, loss of your privilege to drive for up to 6 months, and a fine of up to $2500.00. You do not want to be caught speeding to the store to save a hundred dollars on a new TV and end up having to hire an attorney and pay hundreds in fees, fines, and court costs.
The same courtesy and kindness should apply in the parking lot. Cases about fighting over parking spaces are hated by judges in Northern Virginia. Also, if you see a person with a handicapped sticker park in a handicapped parking space, assume they deserve the handicapped sticker. Not all injuries and illnesses are visible to the public. You do not want to be the embarrassed busybody who questions a disabled veteran or a cancer patient simply because you couldn’t diagnose their illness by watching them walk into the mall.
My law partner Carlos Wall suggested a 9th tip — Shop on Amazon.com — but in my opinion that is not as much fun.
Good luck finding great deals and keep in your heart the holiday spirit. Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Holidays!
The criminal defense lawyers of The Gordon Law Firm have helped more than 4,000 people charged with DUI, Shoplifting, Grand Larceny, Petit Larceny, and criminal charges in Loudoun County, Prince William County, and Fairfax County. Alex Gordon and Carlos Wall will be happy to answer any questions at 703.218.8416.