Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib

Complete Guide to Shoplifting Charges in California


Shoplifting is one of the most common crimes in California. A shoplifting charge can create a permanent criminal record over a few dollars worth of products. Don’t let that happen to you. Here’s what you need to know about shoplifting laws in California, how the crime is defined, and what you can do to defend yourself against these charges and keep your record clean. 

California’s Shoplifting Laws

California Penal Code 459.5 defines the crime of shoplifting as a misdemeanor separate from either burglary or theft. It is punishable by:

  • Up to six months in county jail
  • Misdemeanor/summary probation
  • A fine of up to $1000.

According to the law, “shoplifting is defined as entering a commercial establishment with intent to commit larceny while that establishment is open during regular business hours, where the value of the property that is taken or intended to be taken does not exceed nine hundred fifty dollars ($950).” 

Almost every word of this short definition is important. It narrows the crime of shoplifting based on:

  • Location: Under California law, it’s only possible to shoplift from commercial establishments. If you intend to take something from a non-commercial building, the crime will fall under a different law.
  • Time: Similarly, it’s only possible to shoplift from open businesses. Entering a store outside of its regular business hours with the intent to take something will most likely be considered burglary instead.
  • Value: In California, theft of an amount less than $950 is a misdemeanor, but theft of a greater amount is a felony. If you intend to steal more than that amount, the misdemeanor shoplifting charge no longer applies, and you are instead committing felony burglary.
  • Intent and action: Shoplifting does not require you to actually steal anything. As long as you entered the establishment intending to steal, you have fulfilled the definition of the crime. If you’re found with items on you that you have not paid for and it appears that you intended to leave without paying, that may be enough to warrant charges.

Another critical section of the law states, “No person who is charged with shoplifting may also be charged with burglary or theft of the same property.” If you’ve been charged with the crime, you can’t be prosecuted for burglary or theft for a single incident and vice versa. The definitions of these crimes are mutually exclusive. 

Examples of Shoplifting in California

Shoplifting can take many forms. The most common example is someone visiting a store and walking out with a stolen pack of gum in their pocket. However, it may also look like this:

  • Visiting an electronics store with the intent to steal an $800 device.
  • Going to a drugstore and purposefully placing medications in your bag to leave without being asked to pay.
  • Planning to deliberately put items on the bottom of your cart at the grocery store so the cashier won’t ring them up.
  • Going to a bookstore with a plan to walk out with a book like you’ve already paid

It’s important to note that shoplifting must be premediated and cannot be unintentional. If you genuinely intended to pay for something and forgot, didn’t realize you had store property when you left the premises, or only decided to take an item after entering the store, you have not shoplifted. However, if you fail to return or pay for the item, you may still be charged with the crime.

How to Defend Yourself Against Shoplifting Charges

If you’ve been accused of this crime, you have the right to defend yourself against the charges. The most effective defense is to demonstrate that the situation didn’t actually meet the criteria for a shoplifting charge. You can do this by arguing that your intent wasn’t to steal. 

For example, if you were still in the store when you were accused, you can argue that you did not intend to leave without paying. It is the prosecution’s responsibility to prove your intent beyond a reasonable doubt.

If you did leave the store with an item without paying for it, you could still argue that you were absent-minded and did not intend to steal it. This is known as a mistake of fact – you were mistaken regarding whether you had paid. This is a strong defense if you made a good-faith effort to return or pay for the item when you were accused of shoplifting it. 

You can also defend yourself against shoplifting charges by arguing for after-entry intent. This means that you did not intend to steal something until after you had entered the business, meaning that the crime was not premeditated. This may reduce your charge to that of petty theft

In many cases, the simplest solution to these charges are civil compromises or informal diversions. In a civil compromise, you and the business will come to an agreement in which you will repay the store for their losses, such as the stolen product and the cost of loss prevention related to your case. 

Meanwhile, an informal diversion involves pleading guilty and participating in an informal diversion program. This often consists of performing community service and repaying the business for its losses. If you complete the program, your guilty plea will not be entered, and your criminal record will remain clean. 

Get Help After Accusations of Shoplifting

If you don’t take action, a shoplifting charge can give you a permanent criminal record for a theft you didn’t even commit. At the Law Offices of Gabriela Guraiib, we will help you determine the best course of action after you’ve been charged. Our experienced Redwood City shoplifting attorney will guide you through the process of pleading not guilty, pursuing a civil compromise, or requesting an informal diversion. You can learn more about how we will help you by calling (650) 668-4635 or reaching out online. Schedule your free consultation to discover more about the benefits of working with an experienced, empathetic attorney in your case.