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California Shoplifting Laws
- Penal Code §459.5 -

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Shoplifting Charges in California: Understanding the Law

Shoplifting is a common crime, but it carries serious consequences in California.  It’s essential that anyone charged with shoplifting understand how California law defines the offense and the potential penalties, if convicted.

This informational guide delves into California's laws on shoplifting, discussing the various offenses, their associated penalties, and factors that may affect the severity of the charges.  Additionally, the guide provides insights into the legal process and outlines steps individuals can take if they or someone they know is dealing with shoplifting charges.

Penal Code §459.5 States:

"Shoplifting is defined as entering a commercial establishment with intent to commit larceny while that establishment is open during regular business hours, where the value of the property that is taken or intended to be taken does not exceed nine hundred fifty dollars ($950). Any other entry into a commercial establishment with intent to commit larceny is burglary."

1.  How California Defines Shoplifting

In California, shoplifting is defined under Penal Code Section 459.5.  According to PC 459.5, shoplifting occurs when a person enters a commercial establishment with the intent to steal property valued at $950 or less. Shoplifting is actually a form of burglary that applies only to instances committed in a retail setting for property of relatively minor value. 


Shoplifting encompasses a range of activities, from concealing items in one’s bag to altering price tags to reduce the cost of an item. California's law distinguishes shoplifting from other forms of theft, primarily by the setting, the value of the property, and the intent of the offender.  For example, if the property's value exceeds $950, or if the intent was to commit a crime other than theft, then the conduct may be charged as burglary. 


The critical difference between California's shoplifting law and other theft crimes is the concept of "intent."  To be charged with shoplifting, the person must have intended to commit theft upon entering the store.  Conversely, other offenses, like petty theft and grand theft, don’t require that the person enter the store with the intent to steal.  Intent is typically inferred from the circumstances of the conduct, such as the individual's behavior and actions within the store.


In summary, California defines shoplifting as entering a commercial establishment with the intent to steal property worth $950 or less during regular business hours. Understanding this definition helps to clarify the nature of shoplifting charges in California and provides a basis for exploring possible defenses.

2.  Penalties for Shoplifting in California

Shoplifting in California can result in a variety of penalties, depending on the circumstances of the crime, the value of the stolen property, and the defendant's prior criminal history. Under California law, shoplifting is generally considered a misdemeanor, but certain factors can elevate the offense to a felony. Below is a breakdown of the typical penalties associated with shoplifting charges in California.

Misdemeanor Shoplifting Penalties –

If the value of the stolen property is $950 or less and the individual does not have a significant criminal record, shoplifting is typically charged as a misdemeanor crime. The penalties for misdemeanor shoplifting can include:

Fines:  Individuals convicted of shoplifting may be required to pay fines, which can range from a few hundred dollars to $1,000.  In addition to the base fine, a penalty assessment will be added, which significantly increases the final amount the defendant must pay.  In addition to fines and fees, the offender will be required to compensate the retail store for any property that wasn’t recovered.

Jail Time:  A person convicted of misdemeanor shoplifting can also be sentenced to up to six months in county jail. However, first-time offenders often receive more lenient sentences, such as probation or community service.

Probation: As an alternative to confinement in the county jail, Courts may impose probation.  Probation is a form of clemency, which requires the defendant to meet certain conditions, such as attending counseling or completing community service.  The defendant is responsible for successfully completing all of the terms of probation imposed by the Court.  Violating any of the terms can result in the defendant being brought back to Court and resentenced to a more severe penalty.

Inmate Handcuffed

A judge can also order that the defendant be imprisoned in jail as a condition of the defendant's probation. 

Felony Shoplifting Penalties –

While shoplifting is typically a misdemeanor, it can be charged as a felony under certain conditions. If the individual has a criminal record related to violent crimes or sex offenses, then the charges for shoplifting may be increased to a Felony.  The penalties for Felony shoplifting charges can include:

Higher Fines: Felony shoplifting convictions can result in significantly higher fines, often reaching several thousands of dollars.

Longer Term of Imprisonment: A felony shoplifting conviction can be punished by up to three years in state prison. 

Formal Probation: Unlike misdemeanor probation, formal probation for a felony involves more rigorous supervision by a probation officer.  Formal probation regularly requires daily check-ins with a probation officer and randomized searches of the probationer’s home and vehicle.

Indirect Consequences –

In addition to fines, jail time, or probation, individuals convicted of shoplifting face indirect consequences, such as the formation of a criminal record.  A criminal record can affect someone’s future employment opportunities, housing, and other aspects of life.  A criminal record can also impact a non-citizen’s immigration status, leading to deportation, denial of naturalization, and exclusion from the United States.  While a conviction for shoplifting may be eligible for expungement, such relief does not erase or destroy the past records.

Understanding these penalties helps to underscore the importance of taking shoplifting charges seriously and seeking legal counsel to navigate the judicial process effectively.

3.  Common Defenses to Shoplifting Charges in California

When facing shoplifting charges in California, understanding potential defenses is crucial for mounting an effective legal strategy.  Defendants have various ways of challenging the charges.  Here are some common defenses to shoplifting charges in California:

Lack of Intent –

As discussed above, one of the key elements in proving shoplifting is demonstrating that the defendant had an intent to steal when entering the store.  A common defense is that the defendant did not intend to steal the property in question.  For example, the person might have mistakenly walked out with an item or had no intention of concealing or taking the merchandise.  A defendant may not be found guilty of shoplifting unless the prosecutor has first proven such intent.

Mistaken Identity –

Shoplifting incidents can sometimes involve mistaken identity.  This defense asserts that the person charged was not the one who committed the offense.  This can result from misidentification by witnesses, reliance on low-quality surveillance footage, or because someone else used the defendant's identification.

Authority to Take the Property –

In some cases, the defendant may have had permission to take the property or, at least, believed they did.  For instance, the person may have assumed the item was a promotional giveaway or that they had approval from an employee or manager to take the property.  In order for this defense to be successful, the defendant’s belief must have been reasonable under the circumstances.  It is NOT a valid defense when that belief is unreasonable.

Coercion or Duress –

This defense is used when the defendant claims they were coerced or forced into shoplifting by someone else.  If the defendant was under threat or duress, their actions might not be considered willful, which is an element of shoplifting charges.  This defense is particularly difficult because it requires that the defendant to essentially admit to shoplifting.

Fighting in public

Duress is a valid defense to shoplifting.

Insufficient Evidence –

In some cases, the prosecution may lack sufficient evidence to support a shoplifting charge.  This could involve challenges to the credibility of witnesses, problems with surveillance footage, or other issues that weaken the prosecution's case.  Because the prosecutor has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, charges must sometimes be dismissed If the evidence is not strong enough.

These common defenses can help those facing shoplifting charges in California understand the legal strategies available to them.  It is important to consult with a qualified criminal defense attorney to assess the specific circumstances of the case and determine the best approach to contesting the charges.

4.  Why You Should Hire a Lawyer to Defend Against Shoplifting Charges

Facing shoplifting charges can be a daunting experience, with consequences that can potentially impact a person's life, reputation, and future opportunities. Hiring a lawyer to defend against these charges offers numerous benefits that can significantly increase the chances of a positive resolution.

Knowledge of California Law –

Shoplifting laws can be complex, with varying penalties based on the circumstances of the offense.  The criminal defense lawyer at JPLaw, P.C. has a deep understanding of California's legal system, shoplifting statutes, and court procedures. This expertise allows the lawyer to navigate the legal landscape effectively, ensuring that clients receive the best possible defense.

Building a Strong Defense –

An experienced lawyer at JPLaw, P.C. can analyze the details of a shoplifting case, identify weaknesses in the prosecution's evidence, and develop a robust defense strategy. A lawyer can also gather evidence, interview witnesses, review surveillance footage, and explore alternative explanations for the alleged crime. This comprehensive approach helps to strengthen the defense and increase the chances of a favorable outcome.

Negotiating with Prosecutors –

Lawyers are skilled negotiators who regularly work with prosecutors to reach a resolution that benefits their client. In shoplifting cases, this might involve negotiating a plea deal that reduces charges or penalties, arranging for diversion programs, or advocating for probation instead of jail time. By negotiating with prosecutors, lawyers can often mitigate the impact of shoplifting charges.

Judge's Table

Criminal defense lawyers regularly negotiate with prosecutors to minimize the penalties for shoplifting. 

Protecting Legal Rights –

A lawyer's role is to ensure that their client's legal rights are protected throughout the legal process. This includes safeguarding against unlawful searches and seizures, ensuring proper procedures are followed, and preventing self-incrimination. If any legal rights are violated, a lawyer can move to have evidence excluded or charges dismissed.

Anyone facing shoplifting charges in California should consider hiring a lawyer. The complexities of the legal system and the potential consequences of a conviction make professional legal representation invaluable. A qualified criminal defense lawyer can provide the guidance, expertise, and advocacy needed to navigate the challenges of a shoplifting case successfully.

Contact An Orange County Criminal Defense Lawyer 

John-Patrick Mullen-Lujan is a trusted Orange County criminal defense lawyer that prides himself on his ability to communicate with clients as he helps them navigate our complex criminal justice system.


Attorney Mullen-Lujan was named one of the Best Criminal Defense Lawyers in Orange and Newport Beach. Hire an attorney you can trust and who can provide the zealous advocacy you need.


Contact JPLaw, P.C. to schedule your FREE consultation with local Orange County criminal defense lawyer John-Patrick Mullen-Lujan. Together you will review your case and develop a legal defense strategy tailored just for you!


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JPLaw, P.C.

Orange County Law Office

Old Town Orange Office

410 N Clark St.
Orange, CA 92868

Phone: (949) 991-7057

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