Although shoplifting is widely thought of as a petty offense and is generally associated with troublesome adolescents or teenagers, it can be a serious crime under Title 2c of the New Jersey Criminal Code, that can carry significant consequences. In the state of New Jersey, shoplifting under N.J.S.A. 2c:20-11, is a somewhat broadly defined offense that, if committed, can result in punishments as minimal as community service and as severe as multiple years in prison, not to mention possible civil action. Shoplifting is categorized in six types of offenses, all of which can constitute charges ranging anywhere from a second-degree crime to a disorderly persons offense. There are certain requirements of proof the state has to deliver, and multiple defenses, some of which bode more effectively than others in shoplifting cases.
The term “shoplifting” is defined in full in N.J.S.A. 2C:20-11 as one of six acts. To be issued a charge of shoplifting, one of the six following actions are to have been accused.
(1) Purposeful removal of merchandise from any merchant or vendor without payment of full retail value.
(2) Concealment of any merchandise with the intention of removal without payment.
(3) Alteration or removal of any price tag on any merchandise in an attempt to deprive the merchant the value of said merchandise.
(4) Intentional transfer of merchandise from container to container with intent to deprive the merchant the full price of merchandise in the container. (Ex: placement of a Rolex watch in a box of baseball cards.)
(5) “Under-ringing,” which is the manipulation of merchandise or cash register, causing the register to reflect a lesser price than the full value of the merchandise.
(6) Removal of a shopping cart with the intention of permanently depriving the vendor use or possession of the cart. Taking a shopping cart home with the intent to return it in a week during the next shopping excursion would not render someone guilty because they fail the “permanently deprive” element.
Additionally, using “anti-shoplifting countermeasures” is a crime constituting a disorderly persons offense. For example, this could be a person demagnetizing devices on merchandise that would set off an alarm upon removal with the intent to purposefully remove the merchandise without payment.
In order to meet any of these requirements in any shoplifting case, the state has to provide evidence, such as merchandise, witness accounts, camera footage, etc. Most importantly, the state must meet a burden of proof focused mainly on showing that an individual acted intentionally. Essentially, the state has to show that an individual purposefully removed or was intending to remove merchandise without proper payment. The state can meet this burden of proof at the scene of the alleged crime with evidence of unpurchased merchandise concealed or possessed on or outside the premises of a mercantile establishment. This is considered a prima facie, or assumed until proven otherwise, presumption that the concealment or removal was intentional without payment at full retail value. Thus the intent to deprive can be inferred from concealment and the offense is complete with the concealment. No removal of merchandise from outside the store is necessary. Carollo v. Supermarkets General, 251 N.J. Super 264 (App. Div. 1991) concealment is defined as taking merchandise “not visible through ordinary observation.” N.J.S.A. 2C:20-11a(6). Concealment can mean on one’s person, in their belongings or any place deemed “concealed” by a reasonable person.
In addition to the presumption that when concealing merchandise someone has the intention to permanently deprive the merchant of the goods, shoplifting under N.J.S.A. 2C:20-11 carries two other presumptions:
(1) If merchandise is found concealed on the person or property purposeful concealment may be presumed. Placing an object in a pocket or wearing it while exiting the store constitutes concealment. State v Evans 340 N.J. Super 244 (App. Div. 2001).
(2) If a person conceals merchandise on some other innocent third party, purposeful concealment by the person concealing, rather than by the innocent third party on whom concealed, may be presumed. This third presumption, recognizes the practice of using an innocent persons bag to transport stolen merchandise and then reclaim it outside the store.
Many shoplifting charges are pled to downgrade the charges. If entering a not-guilty plea, some defenses include citation of medical condition, discretization of witness accounts or camera footage, or an affirmative defense showing intention to pay for or return the merchandise which was accidentally possessed. The best defense of a shoplifting charge is the use of the state’s “intent” burden of proof. This defense is used with the assumption that the defendant was caught in concealment or possession of the merchandise, and the merchandise was then prima facie presumed to have been taken or concealed intentionally. However, if it can be reasonably doubted that a defendant was purposeful in actions resulting in a shoplifting accusation, the state will likely carry a much less powerful case. This is considered the best defense because the state’s burden of proof in most shoplifting cases provides predominantly that they prove the defendant’s intent.
Shoplifting charges can come by many ways; an individual’s lapse in judgment, a genuine mistake on the part of law enforcement or store management, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s important to know that if put in this situation, people are informed on what they are accused of, the possible penalties carried and what their defense options are.