Answer: yes, you can be charged with shoplifting hours, days, or even weeks after leaving the store with the stolen item.
In the article that follows, we’ll explain.
Can You Get Caught Shoplifting After Leaving The Store Days Later? (Discussion)
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There are several ways that stores gather evidence of shoplifting, including:
- employees observe the incident as it happens on the floor of the store (putting the item in a pocket, failing to scan it at the register, removing the price tag, etc)
- employees observe the incident as it happens live from a remote location via security video feed
- employees observe the incident on a later date while reviewing security video feed
- sensors alert employees that an item had crossed a barrier
- witnesses tattle on the offender (“I saw Jon put the candy in his pocket.”
- collecting the false or fake currency used to purchase the item
- talking to the potential offender
While television often shows dramatic confrontations of shoplifting by uniformed officers, this happens less than you think.
While small or independent businesses are more likely to take immediate action in response to shoplifting, experience has shown larger department stores that confronting shoplifters in the store is a mine field of liability for the store.
The store does not want to get sued for:
- making a mistake (harming the reputation of the citizen)
- putting hands on the offender (physical harassment, assault, battery)
- unlawfully restraining the offender (coercion, kidnapping)
- unlawfully searching the offender (physical harassment, assault, battery)
Don’t forget torts involving emotional distress.
Instead of confronting the shoplifter in the store, stores will make sure to gather the contact information and identity of the suspected shoplifter and put together the evidence against him.
This can take several weeks or even months as the store reviews its available data for additional instances of criminal conduct.
Then the store will forward the complete package that would make the prosecution easy to the police department, so that a report can be filed and forwarded to the prosecutor.
The prosecutor then makes a charging decision.
Once the charges have been filed, the offender could be contacted via phone, notified via mail, or arrested on a warrant.
Statute of Limitations on Shoplifting
While prosecution for shoplifting doesn’t always happen immediately, the store, police, and government have limits for how long they can wait to pursue the case.
On the criminal side, there will be an applicable statute of limitations that limits the time frame to file.
In some states, the statute of limitations is 12 months, while other states it is 24 months.
Depending on the severity and the state, the statute of limitations could be several years longer.
In the civil side, even if the criminal statute of limitations has passed, the store may still be able to pursue the offender for the losses.
The intentional tort of ‘conversion’ may have a statute of limitations of 3 to 6 years, depending upon the state and when the act was discovered by the victim.
You should know that it is fairly common for stores to pursue offenders on the civil side even if the offender gets prosecuted on the criminal side.
Should You Confer With a Lawyer?
This is a great question, and it really depends on the case.
In some states, a simple shoplifting case with low dollar losses (like stealing a pack of gum or a donut) might be resolved without much fanfare or punishment.
Many courts (especially municipal courts) have alternative disposition programs (like probation) aimed at shoplifting.
Conferring with a criminal defense attorney who practices in the jurisdiction where the incident occurred early on can help someone:
- understand the process of the prosecution
- analyze the facts and the likelihood of prosecution
- avoid making the case worse
- consider potential outcomes (trial, alternative disposition, probation, jail)
- understand what self-representation might look like
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