In many states, “shoplifting” is a non-jailable misdemeanor that peace officers have little interest in investigating and prosecutors have little interest in punishing, but that is not the case for “retail theft” cases in Illinois. At the minimum, retail theft is a Class A misdemeanor, and aggressive prosecutors look for any enhancements supported by the facts to increase penalties to a Class 4 felony and even higher.
At Kostopolous Law Group, we routinely handle retail theft cases in Cook County and throughout Chicago. Mr. Kostopoulos is a former prosecutor who has handled thousands of cases and will use his experience to aggressively attack the prosecution’s case. If you’re facing shoplifting charges, speak with a Chicago retail theft attorney at Kostopoulos Law Group today.
What Are the Elements of a Retail Theft Case?
Contrary to popular myth, one does not need to leave the store with an item to be convicted of theft, and one does not even need to leave the store aisle with an item. Instead, the offense is complete when the defendant “obtains or exerts unauthorized control over property of the owner.” Pursuant to 720 ILCS 5/16-25, This conduct includes:
- Physical Touch: Moving an item with the intent to keep or destroy it constitutes theft in Illinois. Intent can be inferred from actions, such as placing an item in one’s pocket as opposed to a shopping cart.
- Label Alteration: It is an offense to remove a price tag or other label and then attempt to pay less than full retail value for the item at the register.
- Under-Ringing: Under standard conspiracy law, the person who driver the getaway car is just as guilty as the person who robs the store. Similarly, if a cashier intentionally under-rings a customer, that’s the same thing as removing the item from the shelf, even if the cashier does not receive a share of the stolen merchandise.
- False Representation: In a retail theft context, this offense usually involves lying to a customer service returns representative to obtain cash, store credit, or whatever.
- Retaining Leased Property: There is a presumption that if a defendant keeps leased property more than ten days past the due date that there is an intent to permanently deprive; in other cases, prosecutors often use circumstantial evidence to prove intent.
It is also a crime to use or possess theft shielding equipment or remove a shopping cart from the store’s property.
What is the Punishment for Retail Theft?
Retail theft under $500 is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $500 fine and/or one year in jail, unless:
- The defendant used the emergency exit, in which case the crime is a Class 4 felony (one to three years in prison and a $25,000 fine), or
- The defendant had any prior theft convictions (Class 4 felony).
Prosecutors may also bring misdemeanor or felony charges if the defendant allegedly took more than $500 in property from any one owner in multiple transactions over the course of one calendar year.
What Can Store Security Do?
The good news is that store security personnel have no right to arrest a defendant suspected of shoplifting. The bad news is that they may detain suspects for a reasonable period and in a reasonable manner. In most cases, that means they can place the defendant in a locked room and perhaps even restrain him or her. Moreover, store security personnel can begin questioning defendants straightaway without informing them of their rights or even calling their parents.
After the fact, the store can ban the defendant from the premises, possibly even if the defendant is later found not guilty or if the charges are dropped.
What Are Some Defenses?
The statute refers to the “owner” of the property, which is generally defined as anyone who has a superior right to possession of the property, a category that could include the record owner, store manager, security guard, cashier, or almost anyone else.
Even with this broad definition, it is not always easy for prosecutors to secure an owner’s testimony a year or more after the alleged retail theft, which is normally the soonest that these cases go to trial. By that time, especially in very low-dollar situations, the owner has either lost interest in the case or has left that job for another position. In both these situations, it is difficult, or impossible, for the prosecutor to subpoena the owner and thereby make a prima facie case.
Are There Alternatives to Trial?
Prosecutors are often anxious to consider non-trial disposition in non-violent cases, especially if the defendant has no criminal record. Many jurisdictions offer deferred prosecution programs that involve a theft-deterrent class and/or a few community service hours. Once the program is completed, prosecutors dismiss the charges and the defendant is eligible for expunction. In other cases, court-supervision probation is available, and defendants are eligible for expunction after a two-year waiting period.
Illinois law also provides a civil penalty of up to $1,000 for a retail theft case, and it is not unusual for defendants to receive demand letters months or even years after the fact. Because of cost considerations, the stores rarely take these cases to trial if the letters go unheeded, but it is quite common for them to turn the matters over to debt collectors.
Speak to a Chicago Retail Theft Attorney Today
There are serious consequences for retail theft, underscoring the need for an aggressive criminal defense attorney in Chicago, like the ones you’ll find at Kostopolous Law Group, LLC. Call today for a free consultation.