Put simply, “retail theft” (commonly referred to as “shoplifting”) is the act of consciously carrying away any merchandise from a retail establishment with the intention of permanently depriving the seller of this merchandise without paying the full asking price.
The Illinois Supreme Court in People v. DePaolo broke the crime of retail theft into three elements. In order to convict a defendant of retail theft, the State must prove that:
- the defendant knowingly took possession of, carried away, transferred, or caused to be carried away or transferred merchandise;
- the merchandise was displayed, held, stored, or offered for sale in a retail mercantile establishment; and
- the defendant intended to retain the merchandise, or intended to permanently deprive the merchant of the possession, use, or benefit of the merchandise, without paying the full retail value of the merchandise.
So what does this mean in Will County, Illinois? Each of these three elements contains certain key words. Consider the first element: The defendant must knowingly carry away the merchandise without having paid for it; this means that a shopper who accidentally leaves the store with unpaid merchandise has not committed the crime of retail theft, as long as it truly was an honest mistake. (The trouble with this defense is that mistake is often difficult to prove, and there are numerous circumstances that permit the court to infer that you were intentionally leaving without paying. More on that later.)
The second element is fairly self-explanatory: The merchandise taken was from the premises of a retail establishment—a store, a market, a mall kiosk, the parking lot of a Home Depot, etc. Now consider the nuances of the third element, which turns on the concept of intent: The law recognizes a difference between an honest mistake and intentional stealing. The ‘intent’ necessary for retail theft is the intent to permanently deprive the seller of the merchandise without paying for it. That can mean keeping the item for yourself, giving it to a friend, or throwing it in the bushes—where it ends up doesn’t matter, as long as you had no intention of returning it in its original condition when you took it.
In some cases, actual removal of the merchandise from the premises is not necessary for a retail theft conviction. The Illinois statute defining retail theft includes acts such as altering or removing price tags, taking items out of their original boxes and placing them in the boxes of cheaper items, using or possessing any tool meant for removing or deactivating theft-detection devices, failing to return rented items, and under-ringing merchandise (e.g., an employee who charges less than the full retail price for a friend or family member). Fraudulent returns are also considered a form of retail theft: It is unlawful for a person to return or exchange unpaid merchandise in an attempt to receive an undue refund or store credit.
As mentioned above, the law permits courts to infer an intent to steal if you are caught concealing unpaid merchandise upon your person or among your belongings in such a way that it is not visible through ordinary observation. This inference is especially supported if you are caught taking concealed unpaid merchandise beyond the last “point of purchase” (e.g. cash register) or payment station, even if you have not yet technically left the store.
If you are accused of retail theft in Will County, Illinois, the State may charge you with either a misdemeanor or a felony (or both), depending on the value of the item and your history of criminal offenses. Therefore, in addition to proving the elements of retail theft, the prosecution must also prove the value of stolen articles in order for the judge to fashion an appropriate sentence. In the absence of contrary evidence, testimony as to value by someone familiar with the merchandise (such as a store manager) is adequate proof.
As a general rule, retail theft of merchandise valued at $300 or less is a Class A misdemeanor; if the merchandise costs over $300, it is a Class 4 felony. However, the charges may be heightened if the defendant has a criminal record or if he or she left with the unpaid merchandise through an emergency exit.
Because a retail theft conviction in Joliet or Will County, Illinois can leave a permanent mark on your criminal record, it is essential that you consult an experienced retail theft attorney if faced with such a charge. In Will County, anything you say to the store owner or manager may be used against you by the prosecution, so it is best to call us immediately before saying, signing, or doing anything if you’ve been accused.
Written by: Sarah Hanneken