Children, especially teens, often like to seem audacious and daring. This may tempt some kids into behavior that is or could be considered shoplifting. There are also many ways in which a child can be falsely accused or perhaps not realize that he/she committed an offense. While the first impulse of a minor or his parents may be to panic, it’s important to remain calm and have the matter handled by an experienced professional.
Shoplifting is a very common offense in New Jersey. While most instances are minor, some could result in felony charges and a risk of being sent to juvenile detention.
Minors who are convicted of shoplifting will have a juvenile record that can affect many aspects of their lives, from college acceptance to financial aid to employment options. Also, children who are not U.S. citizens could face deportation.
What is Shoplifting?
Juveniles who walk out of a store without paying for an item of merchandise can be facing criminal charges for shoplifting. Possible penalties include fines, community service and even time in a juvenile detention facility. Concealing items on one’s person, including in pockets, bags or other containers, constitutes shoplifting under N.J.S.A. 2C:20-11. In New Jersey, a person can also be guilty of shoplifting for any of the following actions:
- If a friend or family member at a store purposely undercharges the item.
- Switching price tags or packaging to pay less than the actual price of an item.
- Under-ringing items, meaning to cause the register to identify a different price than the one marked.
- Taking a shopping cart without intending to return it to the store.
Note that it is also a disorderly persons offense if one possesses or uses an anti-shoplifting device, such as those which demagnetize security tags or alter the bar codes on merchandise.
Penalties and Fines
Depending on how valuable the merchandise is a juvenile can face detention and fines. Specific penalties include:
- Items valued at less than $200. Up to 6 months in detention (disorderly persons offense).
- Items valued between $200 and $500. Up to 1 year in detention (fourth-degree crime).
- Items valued between $500 and $75,000. Up to 2 years in detention (third-degree crime).
- Items valued at more than $75,000. Up to three 3 years in detention (second-degree crime).
These are the maximum sentences for shoplifting in New Jersey. Keep in mind that the value of items can be added together. For example, if multiple kids steal items as part of a coordinated effort–even if they are taken from different stores–they can each be charged for the total value of all the goods.
With the help of a skilled attorney, a child can avoid detention. Family Court judges are often amenable to alternative sentences, such as community service, probation, and more. The key is to present arguments showing why an alternative is more likely to prevent the child from re-offending.
Civil Penalties for Shoplifting
In addition to possible criminal penalties, a juvenile can also face civil penalties for shoplifting. This includes a civil penalty of up to $150, as well as the cost of the merchandise, if it cannot be resold.
The store owner can also sue for other monetary damages related to the incident. For example, if a display case is broken, then the cost to repair may be included in a civil lawsuit. The victim may also be entitled to recover legal fees.
In cases involving juvenile shoplifters, the liability for these costs falls on his/her parents or legal guardians.
How to Beat a Juvenile Shoplifting Charge
The best strategy for beating a juvenile shoplifting charge will depend on the circumstances of the supposed offense, the strength of the evidence against the youth, and his/her past history. Police have strict rules that they must follow when dealing with teens and children. If an officer does not follow those rules, then evidence or testimony gathered could be thrown out.
In some cases, it may make more sense to negotiate with the store owner and/or prosecutors to reduce the charge to a lesser offense with less serious penalties.
No matter the circumstances, the best way to beat a shoplifting charge is to hire an attorney with experience defending juveniles. An attorney can assess the facts and put together a strategy with the best chance of avoiding or minimizing the consequences.
Case Law Analysis
Consequences for a First Offense
In New Jersey, shoplifting is one of several offenses that carry a presumption of non-incarceration (PNI), especially for first-time shoplifting charges. This means that it is assumed that anyone convicted of shoplifting will not go to juvenile detention unless the judge sees it as necessary to correct the behavior.
For those with no previous arrests, a judge may simply release the child to the parents/guardians. The child could be asked to attend state-run counseling; this could be one-on-one or family counseling. In some cases, the child may be released under the condition that the child stays in school and obtains a certain grade-point-average.
If the merchandise was not recovered after the child was caught, then he/she may be asked to pay for its full retail value.
In contrast, if this is a child’s third time shoplifting or the child has had other run-ins with the law, prosecutors are likely to seek harsher penalties. Moreover, even without being sentenced to detention, a conviction for shoplifting can have many negative ramifications that can potentially last into adulthood.
Enrolling in NJ Diversionary Programs
NJ state guidelines recommend special diversionary programs for juveniles such as station house adjustments and curbside warnings. These typically take place as an alternative to being charged with a crime and often involve the parents/guardian of the child. Sadly, such programs are used less frequently than they could be, and far too many youths are forced to settle shoplifting and other charges in Family Court.
In rare cases, a juvenile may be able to avoid conviction via other diversionary programs, such as Pre-Trial Intervention and Conditional Discharge. These are difficult programs to get into, even if the defendant is well qualified. It is best to speak to an attorney before applying to such programs.
Expunging a Juvenile Shoplifting Conviction
A criminal record can have a devastating impact on a child’s future, affecting if and where he/she can go to college, what kinds of jobs he/she can get, and more. These consequences can last well into adulthood. Thankfully, a juvenile can have his/her shoplifting record expunged if they meet certain criteria:
- It has been 3 or more years since the final discharge from custody, supervision, or any other court order.
- The person has not been adjudged a delinquent.
- There are no criminal proceedings or complaints pending.
- They have never been convicted of a crime which, as an adult, would render them ineligible for expungement.
- The person has never had an adult conviction expunged.
- The person has not entered and completed a supervisory treatment or other diversionary programs as an adult.
Even those who are eligible for expungement are not always granted their request. It is best to consult with an attorney before filing an expungement petition to determine how one can maximize the chances of clearing a juvenile conviction.