New Appellate Division Decision on Grading Shoplifting Offenses

A recent decision of the Superior Court’s Appellate Division discussed the grading of shoplifting offenses.  This is important for anyone who has been charged with shoplifting, which is one of the more common offenses heard in New Jersey’s municipal courts.  As shoplifting lawyers in New Jersey, we closely track decisions concerning this offense.

Under our criminal code as currently written, shoplifting will be considered a third degree offense “if the full retail value of the merchandise exceeds $500.00 but is less than $75,000.00”.  Shoplifting is a fourth degree offense “if the full retail value of the merchandise is at least $200.00 but does not exceed $500.00.”  The statute defines “full retail value” as “the merchant’s stated or advertised price of the merchandise”.

While, as noted above, shoplifting offenses are typically heard in the municipal court of the municipality where the shoplifting occurred, it is always possible for these case to be heard in the Superior Court if the dollar amount brings the charge to the level of a third or fourth degree offense.  This is significant since the charge is then treated as an indictable (e.g., felony) matter.  A third degree indictable charge can carry a state prison sentence of between three and five years, and fourth degree indictable charge can result in a state prison sentence of up to 18 months.  Only a New Jersey shoplifting attorney can review the facts of your case and explain what your actual exposure may be.

At issue before the Appellate Division was whether the amount of sales tax that would normally be paid in connection with a purchase of the merchandise should be included in the dollar amount used to grade the degree of the offense.  The Court noted that the shoplifting statute was silent on this issue.  It then turned to the general theft statute, and observed that this provision of the Criminal Code provided that sales tax should be included in assessing the dollar amount of a theft.  Based upon this, the Court reasoned that the Legislature knew that it could have included sales tax in the shoplifting statute in a similar manner, but chose to not do so.  The Court also observed that the purpose of the shoplifting statute is to protect inventory, and found that sales tax is not part of a business’s inventory.  Against this backdrop, the Court concluded that sales tax should not be included in computing the dollar value of the subject merchandise for the purpose of grading the offense.

As an aside, the discovery in shoplifting cases typically includes a video of the underlying incident.  Many retail outlets, particularly “big box” retailers, employ store detectives, and the discovery will contain their description of what happened.  Store detectives will frequently stop people believed to have shoplifted, escort them to an office within the business, and try to get them to admit to the offense.  They will then either include their admission in their description of the events, or relay it to the police who respond to the scene.  As in any other situation involving criminal charges, people stopped for shoplifting should NOT give any kind of statement to the store detective, since it will only be used to support the charges.  The store detective will call the local police and there will be an arrest and a case, either in the local municipal court or the Superior Court.  Statements only make it easier for the prosecutor to prove the charges.  If a statement was given, a shoplifting attorney in New Jersey can render advice on how to minimize, or possibly eliminate, its impact on the case.

James S. Friedman, Esq., is a New Jersey shoplifting lawyer based in New Brunswick.  Mr. Friedman represents defendants accused of shoplifting and other criminal offenses in the New Jersey Superior Court in all counties, and in all New Jersey municipal courts.  If you have been charged with shoplifting, call Mr. Friedman today to start planning your defense.

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