Shoplifting charges are among the most common types of misdemeanor charges brought in SC courts – why are so many people prosecuted, and are they all guilty of shoplifting?
Below, we will take a look at shoplifting charges in SC including:
- The different ways you can be charged with shoplifting,
- Defenses to shoplifting charges,
- Whether you should pay that “civil demand” that you received from Walmart, and
- What you should do if you were wrongfully arrested for shoplifting.
What is Considered Shoplifting in SC?
When you think of shoplifting charges, you probably picture someone slyly slipping merchandise into their pocket or a purse as they walk through a store. That would qualify, but there are other ways that a person can be charged with shoplifting under SC law.
SC Code Section 16-13-110 says that a person can be guilty of shoplifting if they:
- Take merchandise out of a store without paying,
- Give merchandise to another person with the intent of taking it without paying,
- Move merchandise from one area of a store to another with the intent of taking it without paying,
- Change the label or tag and then attempt to pay less than the full retail value of merchandise,
- Conspire with someone else to change a label or tag and then attempt to pay less than the full retail value of the merchandise, or
- Transfer merchandise to a different container with the intent to pay less than the full retail value of the merchandise.
It’s not true that you must leave the store or walk past the registers before you can be charged with shoplifting, although it will be difficult for the store to prove that you intended to shoplift if you didn’t leave the store before you were apprehended.
Penalties for Shoplifting Charges in SC
The penalties for shoplifting charges depend on the value of the merchandise. For example:
- $2000 or less: a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days,
- More than $2000 but less than $10,000: a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison, or
- $10,000 or more: a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison.
Because the potential punishment is based on the dollar value of the property taken, shoplifting can also be charged under SC’s property crimes enhancement statute, SC Code Section 16-1-57:
A person convicted of an offense for which the term of imprisonment is contingent upon the value of the property involved must, upon conviction for a third or subsequent offense, be punished as prescribed for a Class E felony.
A “Class E felony” is punishable by up to ten years – this means that, if you have two or more prior convictions for any property crime where the punishment is determined by the dollar value of the property, a shoplifting charge for a 10 cent piece of candy can become a ten-year felony.
Defenses to Shoplifting Charges
Loss prevention employees get it wrong too often, and they are often far more aggressive than they should be with customers they suspect of shoplifting.
For example, we have seen cases where:
- The video did not show our client taking merchandise,
- Someone else took the merchandise and our client was not involved,
- An elderly person with Alzheimer’s was arrested for mistakenly forgetting to pay for an item,
- A customer who walked past the registers to get a shopping cart was arrested for shoplifting, or
- Loss prevention employees physically assaulted a customer because they suspected shoplifting.
The defenses to your shoplifting charges will depend on the facts of your case. There are also “procedural” defenses that we may raise in a shoplifting case, including:
Failure to produce discovery – when the store refuses to produce the videos that may or may or may not show our client shoplifting, the court may dismiss the charges as a remedy for the discovery violation, and
Failure to prosecute – courts used to allow store employees (loss prevention) to prosecute criminal cases on behalf of their store. Non-attorneys cannot represent corporations, however, and a criminal case cannot be prosecuted on behalf of the state unless a prosecutor or another person authorized by statute is available to prosecute.
Loss prevention officers cannot prosecute a case in court – if an assistant solicitor or the arresting officer does not prosecute the case, it cannot go forward.
Civil Penalties for Shoplifting – Should You Pay Them?
Another potential defense arises when the store sends a letter (usually from an attorney’s office) demanding payment of a civil penalty for the shoplifting incident.
SC Code Section 15-75-40 authorizes stores to send a letter demanding payment of 1) the retail price of merchandise not recovered up to $1500 and 2) a penalty not to exceed $500, in this format:
This letter is written notice of demand for payment of damages in the amount of (amount of damages) arising out of your shoplifting of the following personal property owned by (the undersigned or other owner): (list of property)
Pursuant to Section 15-75-40, Code of Laws of South Carolina, 1976, this letter is further notice that if the amount stated above is not paid, or a written agreement as to its payment is not reached within thirty days of the date of mailing this letter, (I) (we) (other owner) intend to bring a legal action against you for the amount, plus attorney’s fees, court costs, and other relief provided by law. (Name) (Address of business) (City) (person sending notice)
Should you pay it?
SC Code Section 15-75-40(L) also says that “A store which utilizes the provisions of this section is prohibited from subsequently filing criminal charges against the individual pursuant to Section 16-13-110.”
If you are charged with shoplifting and you receive one of these demand letters, you should:
- Bring it to your attorney immediately,
- Unless your attorney tells you otherwise, pay the demand with a money order and mail it certified mail, return receipt requested, and
- Your attorney may be able to use your payment of the civil demand as grounds to dismiss your case.
Why Companies Aggressively Pursue Shoplifters
Large department stores and other chain stores aggressively pursue suspected shoplifters. Why?
Obviously, they want to save money by deterring potential shoplifters. They also make money from sending demand letters for payment of civil penalties once a person has been charged. Many of these stores will err on the side of charging someone, even when there are obvious defenses, and the person may not be guilty.
They will keep doing this until the cost of loss prevention and lawsuits for wrongful arrest is greater than the cost saved by aggressive enforcement…
If you have been wrongfully arrested for shoplifting, you may have a civil rights lawsuit against 1) the store that caused you to be arrested and 2) the officer, police department, and municipality that arrested you.
Your attorney cannot tell you for sure whether you have a civil case until we have reviewed all evidence in your case, and your shoplifting charges have been dismissed or you have been acquitted at trial. We will preserve all evidence in your case, however, and advise you as to whether you have a civil lawsuit once your charges have been disposed of.
Shoplifting Charges Defense Lawyers in Conway, SC
Attorney Johnny Gardner has over twenty years of trial experience defending misdemeanors and felonies in SC courtrooms including shoplifting charges and other property crimes.