Shoplifting is a colloquial term for theft in a retail store. The Criminal Code of Canada doesn’t have a special “shoplifting” provision. Those charged with shoplifting are charged under s. 322, which deals with theft. Speaking briefly and in simple, non-statutory terms, theft occurs when a person takes another’s property and puts it to their own use. One situation where a theft occurs is when a person intent on stealing something moves, or tries to move, that thing. In the context of shoplifting, this means that a person who took something from a shelf and walked out without an attempt to pay would be charged with theft. Now let’s talk about the mechanics of the process and the potential consequences of a theft (shoplifting) charge.
How you can be charged with shoplifting
Many retailers implement a number of shoplifting prevention measures. One of the more common ones in Toronto, Ontario and elsewhere is hiring private undercover investigators, whose primary task is to watch customers and arrest suspected shoplifters. Though these police investigators are not police officers, they have a right to arrest based on the concept of “civil arrest.” Civil arrest allows any person to “arrest” (detain) another, whom they caught in the commission of a criminal offence – in this case, shoplifting.
However, private investigators do not have the right to lay criminal charges. This is done strictly by the police. The private investigator would call the police. Police arrests, in the sense of taking the accused to the police station, are not frequent in shoplifting cases. Usually, the police officer would serve the person charged with a Notice to Appear, which will command the arrested person to provide fingerprints and appear before the court on a certain day to face criminal charge of theft.
What happens after you’re charged, and how a shoplifting charge can be fought
In the vast majority of shoplifting cases the Crown prosecutes an accused “summarily.” In practice, this means two things:
- The punishment may be in the form of a fine of up to $2,500.00, or incarceration for a period of time no longer than 6 months.
- The accused can be represented by a paralegal, which frequently means lower legal costs.
Defences against shoplifting are complex and may vary. They depend on the circumstances of each particular case, and will depend on the evidence collected against you, which is contained in your disclosure package, as well as considering whether all rights of the accused were properly observed.
Potential outcomes of a shoplifting charge
Direct Accountability Program
With able presentation of your case, if you are a first time offender and the amount of theft is insignificant, the case can usually be resolved such that you don’t get a criminal record, but must instead participate in a “direct accountability program.” This program would allow the accused to have his theft charge withdrawn after completing some conditions determined by a special social worker. These conditions may vary from providing a charitable donation, to taking some counselling, or undertaking a certain number of hours of community work.
In more complex situations, the case can be resolved by way of conditional discharge. This would require you to formally plead guilty to the offence. Then the court will “conditionally discharge” you, which means you will be put on 12 – 18 months probation with certain conditions. If you follow all conditions of the probation during this time set, you will not have a criminal record.
Trial or Plea of Guilty
If neither of the above options are, for whatever reason, available, the accused faces two choices:
- Plead guilty, get a criminal record, but negotiate the form and extent of punishment, or
- Plead not guilty and have a full trial with a view to having the accused acquitted.
As already mentioned, each of these choices depends on the circumstances of the case and the evidence in the Crown’s possession. However, if you are charged with theft (shoplifting), you should know that with competent help, there are usually ways to resolve the situation and make sure that you don’t have a criminal record.