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Have you ever noticed the dark globes sunk into the ceiling of a department store? Despite the lack of obvious guards, you can be sure someone is watching your every move.

Stores like Target, Best Buy, and others employ loss prevention (LP) employees to protect their merchandize and catch shoplifters. LP employees typically watch and wait until the person has taken something, concealed it, and has left the store before apprehending him.

LP employees will try to get a statement from the shoplifter. They may tell the person that if he confesses and gives back everything, they won’t call the police. They may make other promises. Don’t believe them. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t give any statements.

You may remember from an earlier column that police are allowed to lie to a suspect in order to elicit a confession. LP may employ even more devious interrogation tactics because they are agents of a private company. The Constitution was intended only to prevent abuses by government agents, such as the police, and doesn’t regulate private conduct.

Once the police arrive they obtain statements from the LP personnel and sometimes from the suspect. Then they either arrest and take the suspect to jail or release the individual with a citation and a court date.

With certain exceptions, the California penal code currently criminalizes taking merchandize worth more than $400 as grand theft. Taking items valued at less than $400 is typically petty theft. Grand theft may be prosecuted as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Petty theft is a misdemeanor but, if the value of the goods taken is less than $50, the prosecutor may make it an infraction. An infraction is similar to a traffic ticket.
Second and subsequent violations may be prosecuted as felonies regardless of the value of the goods taken. Simple thefts are typically misdemeanors unless high value items are taken or the suspect has prior theft convictions.

The criminal consequences of shoplifting can range from a simple fine to a few weeks in the county jail for misdemeanors to state prison for felonies. In addition, if the merchandize is not recovered in a condition to be resold, the merchant will be compensated at fair market value. Courts must order convicted defendants to pay restitution for any damages their conduct caused.

Apart from the criminal penalties, shoplifting also has some civil consequences. Penal code section 490.5 entitles merchants to obtain damages from a shoplifter in an amount between $50 and $500 plus costs.

Naresh Rajan is an attorney in San Mateo County. Email


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