Charged With Shoplifting, Can You Get It Dismissed?
Shoplifting may not seem like a serious crime, but it definitely carries serious penalties if you are convicted or plead guilty to the charges. That’s because shoplifting is considered a theft offense in New Jersey, and prosecutors are often reluctant to offer favorable plea deals in these types of cases. Not only could you be looking at jail time, but there may also be financial consequences in the form of court-ordered fines and restitution to the store from which you allegedly took the merchandise without paying. Beyond that, a shoplifting conviction would leave you with a criminal record, not to mention mandatory community service requirements and immigration problems if you are not a citizen of the United States. That’s why it is vital for you to speak with an experienced criminal defense lawyer who knows the best ways to defend a shoplifting case in NJ. If you have been accused of shoplifting in towns such as Weehawken, Jersey City, Hoboken, Union City, Kearny, or Bayonne, contact the knowledgeable team of attorneys at William Proetta Criminal Law to discuss your shoplifting case and explore the possible defense options you may have to beat the charges.
What the Prosecutor Needs to Prove to Get a Shoplifting Conviction in NJ
To successfully defend against a shoplifting charge, you need to first understand the prosecutor’s responsibilities when it comes to proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt. As a defendant in the NJ criminal justice system, you might find yourself feeling a bit overwhelmed by the process. This is not unusual, especially if it’s the first time you have ever been charged with a crime. By contrast, the prosecutor tasked with getting a conviction in your case has probably tried hundreds of shoplifting cases, and he or she will definitely have a solid understanding of what the law says. The prosecutor will also be cognizant of the fact that certain critical elements must be established at trial in order to prove the state’s case and secure a conviction. These elements are as follows.
Theft Happened at a Store
Although shoplifting is technically a form of theft, shoplifting and theft are governed by different sections of the NJ Criminal Code. In order for a person to be charged with a shoplifting offense in New Jersey, the illegal act must be committed on the premises of a store or other type of commercial establishment with retail sales. Also, the statute broadly defines a store to include common use areas in a shopping mall where the store is located, as well as the store parking lot.
Purposeful Act of Shoplifting
There are many different acts that can constitute a shoplifting offense according to the statute (N.J.S.A. 2C:20), including removal of merchandise from a store, concealing merchandise while inside the store, altering a price tag, switching containers with the merchandise inside, under-ringing merchandise at the cash register for a lower price, and stealing a store shopping cart. One thing that all of these acts have in common is that they must be committed purposely in order for authorities to bring a shoplifting charge against the offender. In other words, if it is more likely than not that you knew what you were doing when you took an item from the store, you may be guilty of shoplifting.
Intent to Steal
The prosecution does not need to prove that you actually got away with the merchandise. That’s because the law explicitly prohibits anyone from committing an act of shoplifting with the intent to steal the merchandise from the store without paying for it. Of course, actually proving a person’s intent would typically require knowing what was going on in that person’s mind at the time of the offense, so the statute makes it easier for the prosecutor in shoplifting cases: there is a presumption by the court that anyone who concealed merchandise on store premises did so willfully and that they intended to steal the merchandise.
It is important to note that the prosecutor must prove all of these elements, and they must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. This provides a window of opportunity for a skilled criminal defense lawyer to combat a shoplifting charge. If even one element is not satisfied by the prosecution, the defendant should be acquitted and found not guilty.
Types of Courts Where You May Need to Defend Your Shoplifting Case
Your shoplifting case is likely to be scheduled for trial in either the local Municipal Court or the county Superior Court, depending on whether the charge is classified as a disorderly persons offense (i.e., a misdemeanor) or an indictable offense (i.e., a felony). A shoplifting offense involving store merchandise valued at less than $200 is a disorderly persons offense, while a theft involving items valued at $200 or more is a more serious indictable offense. Municipal Court cases are heard by a judge, while Superior Court cases are heard by a jury. The prosecution’s burden of proof and the elements that must be proven to secure a conviction are the same in both courts. Notably, if you are a juvenile charged with shoplifting, your case will be prosecuted in Juvenile Court, a subsection of the Family Division of the Superior Court.
Common Defenses to a Shoplifting Charge in NJ
When it comes to proving the required elements for a shoplifting charge conviction, the prosecutor is going to need to introduce evidence. This may include witness testimony from store customers, witness testimony from store employees and security guards, video surveillance footage, and the police report. The strength of this evidence will go a long way toward establishing the prosecution’s case, which is why it’s so important for your attorney to challenge the evidence when possible. The good news is that there may be a number of ways to call into question the evidence in your case and either undermine it or get it ruled inadmissible at trial. Here are some of the top defense strategies for New Jersey shoplifting offenses.
Absence of Witness Testimony
Eyewitness testimony from people who claim to have observed the defendant stealing merchandise is a huge factor in most shoplifting cases. Whether it was a store clerk, a loss prevention officer, or a customer, sworn testimony from a witness can be persuasive when the prosecution is attempting to prove all the necessary elements of their case. But the witnesses will need to show up for trial so that they can be cross-examined by the defense. If they fail to appear on the scheduled trial date for any reason, the prosecution may be unable to meet their burden of proof in the case. Depending on the circumstances, the judge might postpone the trial to allow a witness to appear later, or the judge might dismiss the charges altogether.
Absence of Video Surveillance Evidence
Video surveillance footage from inside the store can be compelling evidence in a shoplifting case because, unlike witness testimony, this type of evidence is usually objective. Basically, what you see on film is typically a more accurate depiction of what happened. These days, there is an expectation among a lot of judges and jurors in shoplifting cases that store owners will be able to provide surveillance footage that shows the defendant concealing and/or taking merchandise from the store. When there is no video evidence, the judge or jury will have to rely on subjective testimony from witnesses and police officers – and this might not be enough to convince them that the defendant committed the alleged shoplifting offense.
No Intent to Steal
Since one of the elements that the prosecution must prove is that you intended to steal the store merchandise, your lawyer may be able to beat the charges by showing that you accidentally exited the store without paying for an item. It is worth noting that the burden of proof will be on you to prove that you did not intentionally take the item because the fact that the item was concealed will create a presumption against you. It’s still possible to rebut the presumption, however, especially if you simply forgot about a single item while paying for several others.
Failure to Provide Discovery
In any criminal proceeding, the prosecution must follow through during the pre-trial discovery process by turning over any evidence that they plan to introduce at trial. The prosecutor isn’t allowed any surprises at trial. Your attorney should request to see all of the prosecution’s evidence, and then they will be able to craft a defense strategy based on that evidence. If the prosecution fails to provide discovery evidence within a certain timeframe, it may be possible for you to request a dismissal of the shoplifting charges on the grounds that all defendants in criminal cases are entitled to a speedy trial.
If You Have Been Arrested and Charged With Shoplifting in New Jersey, Know This: There Are Ways to Get Shoplifting Charges Dismissed.
Contact the highly qualified Shoplifting Lawyers at our Hudson County defense firm to look into the potential defenses that may apply in your case. The consultation is always free and with local offices in Jersey City, we serve clients in all surrounding areas, including towns like West New York, Harrison, Guttenberg, Secaucus, and North Bergen. Call (201) 793-8018 to learn more.