When should shoplifting be considered a felony?

Lawmakers are cracking down on shoplifting. In many states, including Pennsylvania, retailers are working hard to ensure that the shoplifting laws are strict and that prosecutors bring the toughest charges.

The retail industry defends its actions by claiming there are organized retail theft rings active who cost the industry a great deal of money. Yet that doesn’t explain cracking down on individual shoplifters who aren’t part of a ring.

Many people who shoplift do so out of necessity. Others simply make a bad choice. When should a bad choice be a felony? And if it is, how does that square with retailers’ promises about social and racial equity?

Recently, the consumer-interest nonprofit Public Citizen issued a report that calls out some major retailors for their campaigns to promote harsher shoplifting penalties.

“Corporations that embraced criminal justice reform rhetoric have been fueling mass incarceration,” the report states.

The author of the report, Public Citizen’s Rick Claypool, is a corporate crime watchdog. When he heard about a case in Tennessee, however, he became concerned.

In that case, a Walmart store banned one alleged shoplifter from the store. When she came back and allegedly tucked something into her purse, the store pursued felony trespassing charges. The woman was convicted and given a six-year sentence.

The National Retail Federation, which lobbies for the retail industry, says that “retailers are not about filling the jails with tons of people who’ve stolen small-dollar amounts of goods.” Yet they’ve been making an effort to bring down the merchandise value threshold that makes shoplifting a felony.

How is shoplifting penalized in Pennsylvania?

As in many states, Pennsylvania’s retail theft law allows for prosecution of the offense at different levels, depending on the circumstances.

Retail theft is defined as doing any of the following:

  • Taking possession or carrying away any merchandise from a retail establishment without paying the full retail value
  • Changing or removing price tags or labels
  • Transferring merchandise into new containers to avoid paying the full retail value
  • Manipulating a cash register to “under ring’ an item
  • Tampering with security devices

On your first offense, as long as the merchandise was valued at less than $150, you could be charged with a summary offense. This carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $300.

If you are arrested on a second offense of retail theft and the merchandise was valued at less than $150, you could be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor. This carries a penalty of up to two years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.

Once the merchandise is worth $150 or more, you could be facing first-degree misdemeanor charges, which are more serious than second-degree charges. These apply on a first or second offense and can carry a penalty of up to 5 years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

Shoplifting can be charged as a third-degree felony in Pennsylvania when:

  • This is the person’s third or subsequent offense, regardless of the value of the merchandise
  • The merchandise is valued at more than $1,000
  • The item stolen was a firearm

This offense carries a sentence of up to seven years in jail and a fine of up to $15,000.

Organized retail theft, which requires a criminal enterprise of at least two people, can also be charged a felony. If the value of the stolen merchandise is at least $5,000 but less than $20,000, the offense is a third-degree felony. If the stolen merchandise is valued at $20,000 or more, the offense is a second-degree felony.

As you can see, Pennsylvania’s retail theft statutes are strict. Should they carry such serious penalties?