If someone has been charged with theft, they could be facing thousands of dollars in fees and fines, as well as potential jail time. In addition, a theft charge can cause permanent damage to a person’s reputation, jeopardize relationships with family and friends, and cost them their job. In the state of New Jersey, the accused may also face serious civil penalties that cost more money. Whether the person committed the crime or not, it is critical that they retain an experienced criminal defense lawyer who will review the details of the case, develop a strategic and effective defense strategy, and fight for the best possible outcome, whether that is a reduced charge or complete exoneration.
Types of Theft Offenses
Theft is defined as the unauthorized taking of property from another person with the intent to deprive the victim of the property permanently. New Jersey laws identified specific types of theft offenses, including the following:
- Theft by deception: This is when an individual takes another person’s property under false pretenses. An example of this is if someone steals another person’s Social Security number and uses it to take out a loan. Depending on the amount of the property stolen, the individual could face misdemeanor or felony charges.
- Theft by extortion: This occurs when an individual obtains property or money from another person by making threats against that person. This is a serious crime.
- Theft of lost or mistakenly delivered property: If an individual found lost property, and failed to return it to the rightful owner, it could qualify as theft.
- Receiving stolen property: This occurs when an individual receives property that he or she knows is stolen, yet the person keeps the property with no intention of returning it.
- Burglary: This involves the illegal entrance onto a property or structure with the intent to commit theft. If weapons are used, penalties can include up to 10 years in prison and $150,000 in fines.
- Possession of burglary tools: To be convicted of this offense, the defendant must have possessed or manufactured the tool, used the tool in a burglary, known that the tool was used for burglaries, and that the accused intended to use the tool in a burglary.
- Theft of services: This occurs when an individual uses services without paying for it. A common example of this is if a person uses telecommunication services illegally and does not pay for the services.
- Theft by unlawful taking: An individual is guilty of theft if he or she unlawfully takes, or exercises unlawful control, over movable property, which includes jewelry, vehicles, computers, and other electronics; or immovable property, which includes real estate or other financial investments.
- Auto theft: The act of stealing a car in New Jersey carries a penalty of up to five years in jail and thousands of dollars in fines. However, there are other charges that are linked to auto theft that can result in a more severe punishment. For example, carjacking is a first-degree offense and is punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
- Shoplifting: This is when a person hides or steals merchandise, alters labels, transfers items to another container, under-rings merchandise, or removes a shopping cart with the intent to deprive the merchant.
What are the Charges for Shoplifting in New Jersey?
In addition to being a criminal theft offense, shoplifting is considered a crime of moral turpitude. Federal immigration law defines this type of crime as conduct that shocks the public conscience as being inherently base, vile, or depraved, contrary to the rules of morality and the duties owed between man and man, either one’s fellow man or society in general. This can have a significant impact on an individual’s reputation, particularly if the accused is not a U.S. citizen.
As a result, there are instances in which the consequences of shoplifting can be quite severe. There are instances where a criminal defense lawyer can file a motion to dismiss the case based on the argument that the accused’s behavior was not serious enough to warrant the charge. If the owner of the store, the employee, or the security guard who pressed charges fails to show up in court, the case may be dismissed.
What If a Minor is Accused of Shoplifting?
If a juvenile is accused of shoplifting, the penalty will depend on a number of factors, including the value of the item that was stolen and whether it is a first offense. Unlike adult crimes, which are held in the criminal court system, juvenile shoplifting crimes are typically held in New Jersey’s family court. The following are possible punishments for juvenile shoplifting:
- Up to six months in a juvenile detention facility if the goods that were stolen are valued at less than $200. This is considered a disorderly persons offense.
- Up to one year in a juvenile detention facility if the stolen items were valued between $200 and $500. This is a fourth-degree crime.
- If the stolen items were valued between $500 and $75,000, this is a third-degree crime, and the minor could spend up to two years in a juvenile detention facility.
- For goods valued over $75,000, the minor could spend up to three years in a juvenile detention facility for a second-degree crime.
What Evidence is Necessary to Prove Shoplifting?
Whether the person accused of shoplifting is a minor or an adult, to have a successful case, the prosecutor must be able to prove the following:
- The accused was seen approaching the merchandise.
- The accused was seen selecting the merchandise.
- The accused hid, carried away, or converted the merchandise.
- The accused was observed by the merchant or another witness.
- The accused did not pay for the merchandise.
- The merchant or a security officer approached the accused outside the store.
What If Someone Took an Item by Accident?
It is not uncommon for shoppers to become distracted while shopping, only to realize that they walked out of a store with merchandise for which they did not pay. In most cases, this would not be considered shoplifting because there was no intent to steal the merchandise. It was an honest mistake. However, if the individual did not return the item once he or she realized that the item was taken, he or she could end up facing shoplifting charges. To avoid the embarrassment of being apprehended by a security officer for mistakenly leaving the store with unpaid merchandise, shoppers should always pay close attention to what they have in their hands as they leave a store and make sure that they paid for all the merchandise.
Shoplifting is taken very seriously in the state of New Jersey, particularly as the value of the item that was stolen increases. Shop owners have the right to seek compensation for the stolen merchandise and for the trouble the incident caused. The shoplifter will likely be expected to cover the cost of the item stolen, the store’s legal fees, and a shoplifting surcharge, which is usually $150.
What Determines the Penalty for a Theft Crime?
There are several factors that determine the degree of criminal offense for which an individual will be tried, including the value of the property that was stolen and whether violence was involved in the crime. For example, theft will likely be charged as a disorderly persons offense if the total value of the stolen merchandise is less than $200. However, if the retail value of the merchandise is $75,000 or more, theft becomes a second-degree offense. In New Jersey, crimes are either disorderly offenses, or first, second, third, or fourth-degree offenses. First-degree offenses are the most serious. Theft offenses are categorized based on the following:
- Less than $200: Disorderly offenses with penalties of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
- Between $200 and $500: Fourth-degree offense with a penalty of up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
- Between $500 and $75,000: Third-degree offense with a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
- Over $75,000: Second-degree offense with a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000.
- First-degree offenses: These include crimes such as armed robbery and carjacking. Penalties for these crimes include sentences of up to 20 years in prison and fines as high as $200,000.
What are the Civil Penalties for Theft?
Unlike criminal penalties, which are determined by a criminal court, civil penalties are determined by New Jersey administrative law. Whether the victim of the theft offense is a shop owner or a homeowner, that individual can file a civil lawsuit for monetary losses they suffered as a result of the theft, as well as any personal injuries that he or she suffered. For example, if the defendant broke into a home and stole valuable jewelry and electronics, the defendant may be sued for the cost of the items stolen, as well as any property damage caused by the break-in. If the victim was injured during the theft, the defendant may also be responsible for medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering associated with the injury.
There are a wide range of punishments for theft crimes based on the nature of the crime and whether violence was involved. A skilled criminal defense lawyer can examine the evidence and negotiate a lesser charge or sentence for his or her client.
Common Defense Strategies for Theft Charges
There are several legal defense strategies that can be used in a theft case. It all depends on the specific facts surrounding the case and the strength of the evidence that the prosecutor can collect. Even if the defendant took the property he or she is accused of taking, a criminal defense lawyer may proceed with one of the following defense strategies:
- Claim of ownership of property: This strategy may be used if the accused individual can prove that he or she believed that the property was theirs and that they had a legal claim to it. The accused will need to provide solid evidence supporting the claim. The defendant arguing that they thought the item was theirs is not a valid defense by itself.
- Intoxication: This defense strategy may work if the defendant can prove that he or she was under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or other substances at the time of the theft. For example, if the accused was intoxicated at a party and stole an expensive clothing item, thinking it belonged to him or her, a criminal defense lawyer may use this line of defense. However, this defense can be tricky because public intoxication is a criminal offense.
- Return of property: If an individual who is accused of theft returns the stolen item, this is not necessarily an effective defense strategy, but it may make a jury more sympathetic toward the accused, which can help his or her chances of having penalties reduced. However, if the defendant can prove that they had every intention of returning the property at the time it was taken, they may claim that the property was borrowed and not stolen.
- Entrapment: This defense strategy may be used if the accused committed the crime but was coerced by law enforcement.
- Pretrial intervention: This is a strategy that a criminal defense lawyer may pursue for first-time offenses or low-level crimes. In some cases, it is possible that charges may be dropped if the defendant completes counseling, community service, restitution, or other specific program requirements.
- Plea bargain: If a pretrial intervention is not an option, the accused’s criminal defense lawyer may be able to negotiate a plea bargain with the prosecutor. This usually involves a reduced charge or sentence in exchange for a guilty plea from the accused.
- Reduced sentencing: As noted, depending on the details of the case and severity of the charges, a criminal defense lawyer may try to negotiate a plea bargain with the prosecutor. This can range from less time served or a rehabilitation program to a reduced sentence or dropping the charges entirely.
What If a Client Pleads Guilty to a Theft Charge?
Unlike other crimes, such as driving under the influence or being charged with possession of marijuana, there is a particularly negative stigma associated with a theft charge. Stealing property, money, or services from another person or store owner is considered a far more serious crime compared to crimes that are on the same level. If the person accused of a theft crime wants to plead guilty, either because he or she has a criminal history or because the accused thinks that pleading guilty is the right thing to do, it is the criminal defense lawyer’s responsibility to explain why that may not be the best legal course of action. Pleading guilty can result in prison time, hefty fines, and cause permanent damage to the individual’s reputation.
A skilled criminal defense lawyer will examine the details of the case, including any damaging evidence that the prosecution may have, and develop a strategic and effective defense strategy. In addition, he or she will thoroughly explain the legal system, including the rules and regulations that will impact the case, and recommend the best legal course of action.
New Jersey Criminal Defense Lawyers at Ellis Law Advocate for Those Charged with Theft
If you were accused of theft, it is in your best interest to contact the New Jersey criminal defense lawyers at Ellis Law at your earliest convenience. We will review the charges against you and develop an effective defense strategy. Our skilled and dedicated legal team will work tirelessly to achieve the best possible legal outcome, whether that is a reduced charge or complete exoneration. We will not stop fighting for you until you are completely satisfied. To schedule a free consultation, call us today at 732-308-0200 or contact us online. Located in Freehold, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout East Brunswick, Toms River, Middletown, Jersey City, Neptune, Hudson County, Union County, Essex County, and Ocean County, as well as Brooklyn and New York, New York.