If you’ve been charged with shoplifting and word has gotten out, you’ve probably had to face friends and family who have a lot of preconceived notions about retail theft. You’ll likely face a lot of people who are trying to make sense of why you stole—and you may not entirely understand why you did it yourself. There’s no one motivation for shoplifting and no one type of person who shoplifts, yet a lot of people continue to think of shoplifting as a black-and-white issue.
In order to better understand shoplifting—whether you’ve been charged with the crime yourself or know someone who has been—let’s look at six common misconceptions behind retail theft.
Myth #1: Most Shoplifters Are Teenagers or Women
Shoplifting is commonly depicted as a crime committed mostly by teenagers or women, and this perception has only been strengthened by high-profile shoplifting cases such as LA’s teenage ‘Bling Ring’ and Winona Ryder’s infamous theft from Saks Fifth Avenue. Because of this image, those who don’t fit the “shoplifting stereotype” might be particularly ashamed to be caught and may resist seeking legal help out of fear of drawing more attention to themselves.
In reality, people who shoplift are incredibly diverse. While some offenders are indeed teenagers more vulnerable to temptation and with poorer impulse control, there are also plenty of adults who shoplift – men and women stealing at a fairly equal rate. Studies have shown that demographic profiles are not good predictors of who will shoplift.
Myth #2: Shoplifting Is Motivated by Financial Need
By some estimates, only 5% of shoplifters are motivated to steal by a legitimate financial need. Other motivations for shoplifting are often varied and complex, and may include stealing due to a true addiction (e.g. kleptomania), stealing as a form of thrill-seeking, or stealing out of a sense that society ‘owes’ the shoplifter something.
Myth #3: Most Shoplifted Items Are Expensive
While some people may picture all shoplifters slipping high-end clothing or costly jewelry under their jackets, the majority of shoplifted items aren’t particularly expensive. Some of the most commonly stolen items include cigarettes, energy drinks, infant formulas, lotions, weight loss pills, and pregnancy tests.
The sentence for those convicted of shoplifting depends largely on the monetary value of the items allegedly stolen, but it’s important to understand that even if you only stole small-ticket items, you can still end up with a criminal record if you’re convicted.
Myth #4: People Who Shoplift Will Commit Other Crimes as Well
A lot of people assume that shoplifters are morally corrupt and are likely to commit other crimes, but for the most part, people who shoplift tend to be otherwise law-abiding. They might turn in a lost wallet to the local police department or catch up to someone who dropped a $5 bill to give them their money back. Because they only commit one specific crime, a one-size-fits-all approach to penalizing them is generally ineffective; shoplifters may need offense-specific rehabilitation rather than just community service or a prison sentence.
Myth #5: Shoplifters Typically Enter a Store with a Plan to Steal
Shoplifting is rarely premeditated. According to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, 73% of adults and 72% of minors charged with shoplifting say that they did not plan to steal before they entered the store. Some of these people may simply end up stealing out of peer pressure, because they are overly stressed in other areas of their life, because they absent-mindedly pocketed an item, or because they made a rash decision in one moment.
Myth #6: Routine Shoplifters Can Stop at Any Time
People who don’t understand the motivations behind shoplifting might say something like, “If shoplifters don’t want to be penalized, they shouldn’t have stolen in the first place.” However, it’s not always as easy as that. People who shoplift on a regular basis can’t always control their impulses in order to prevent themselves from stealing. Even those people who have been caught and punished for shoplifting can’t always stop—57% of adults caught shoplifting report that it was hard for them to stop stealing even after facing legal consequences. For these people, shoplifting may be a true addiction and is better treated as a mental illness than as a crime.
If you or someone you love is facing shoplifting charges, it’s essential that you work with a defense attorney who understands this complex offense and can show a judge that harsh legal sentencing is not the best solution in this type of case.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.