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Shoplifting and Employee Theft–Criminal Justice Minute

Theft crimes are on the rise in Texas as economic conditions change here. The most common theft offense is the misdemeanor theft committed in the context of shoplifting and employee theft. Shoplifting is the act of taking store merchandise past all points of sale out of a store without paying for the merchandise, with the intent to deprive the owner of that property and without the owner’s effective consent. Employee theft can occur in many different ways, the most typical being false merchandise returns and cash register skimming.

Shoplifting and employee theft can either be a misdemeanor or felony offense depending upon the value of the merchandise stolen. Theft is a Class C offense punishable by a maximum fine of $500 if the value of the property stolen is under $100; a Class B offense punishable by jail confinement up to six months, a fine of up to $2000, or both fine and confinement, if the value of the property stolen is over $100 and under $500; and a Class A offense punishable by jail confinement up to one year, a fine of up to $4000, or both fine and confinement, if the value of the property stolen is over $500 and under $1500. Theft of property valued over $1500 is a felony.

Shoplifting cases are typically made when store security personnel detect a shopper who selects merchandise, secretes the merchandise in clothing or another shopping bag or cart, passes all points of sale without paying for the merchandise and then attempts to leave the store. The person may be stopped and detained by store security personnel and held for police. Retail stores have become very sophisticated in their shoplifting detection methods – they use closed circuit cameras, undercover “shoppers” who are in fact security personnel, and sometimes other shoppers who tip store security on other shoppers attempting to steal.

Employee theft cases are typically made when cash register receipts and merchandise tracking are compared by retail fraud investigators and the difference attributed to a particular employee.

Shoplifting and employee theft cost retailers over $45 billion in 2015, and there are indications that this number is rising. Retailers have become very sophisticated in their methods of detection and merchandise / sales evaluation. Larger retailers have very strict prosecution policies and are able to prove theft cases more easily in recent times.

When a person is arrested for shoplifting or employee theft, they will most likely be released by the Harris County Sheriff on personal recognizance on their promise to appear in court on the next business day. At that time their bail may be evaluated and additional conditions may be ordered such as no contact with the store, curfew and other conditions reasonably connected to the offense charged. If the defendant is indigent as determined by a court hearing evaluating their finances and ability to hire counsel, an attorney will be appointed to represent them. If the defendant is not indigent, they will be given two to three weeks to hire counsel.

These cases are often disposed by pre-trial diversion or deferred adjudication probation without a finding of guilt, and sometimes by a straight probation or even jail confinement with a finding of guilt. A theft conviction with a finding of guilt can have a devastating affect on a person’s ability to obtain employment, housing, and college admissions.

Young people who are home for the summer during school breaks are often dared by their friends to steal something in a store. Or, if they are given the responsibility of working behind a cash register, they may be tempted to give themselves or their friends false merchandise return refunds or other fraudulent cash skims from the drawer. When they are caught they and their families are shocked when they are arrested, handcuffed, transported in a police car, and later brought to an adult courtroom with jurisdiction over 17 year olds. I urge parents to have a serious conversation with their teenagers home for the summer about the terrible risks and life-changing consequences of shoplifting and employee theft.

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