Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer on Theft and Shoplifting in a Bad Economy

December 23, 2008 by David S. Seltzer

I spotted an article in today’s New York Times that I thought was sobering but relevant to my practice as a criminal defense lawyer in South Florida. Just in time for the holidays, the Times brings us a reminder of the economic troubles many Americans face this year. The article tells the story of Richard R. Johnson of Elkhart, Indiana, who faces shoplifting charges for trying to steal a $4.99 bottle of sleep medicine from a grocery store. He had actually intended to pay, but came up a dollar short.

Johnson admits his guilt and says he realizes it was a bad move, perhaps committed because he was desperate. He was laid off last year from a well-paying job building trailers, then again recently from McDonald’s. His family of four relies on his wife’s minimum-wage job at Wal-Mart, help from family and a food bank to get by.

According to the article, retailers are seeing a sharp increase in shoplifting -- 10% to 20% higher than normal, according to police departments. That may be a low figure, in fact, because stores often choose to handle smaller thefts on their own. While many people arrested for shoplifting are people who made bad decisions under stress, like Johnson, the article says many other shoplifters are part of organized shoplifting rings. These organized crime rings have moved online, where they can do millions of dollars in business. Experts quoted in the article say that it’s these rings, rather than individuals like Johnson, who pose a serious threat to retailers.

Johnson told the New York Times he was surprised that the grocery store would bother prosecuting such a small theft. The store says its policy is to prosecute all theft, and of course, it has every right to do so. Shoplifting is a crime -- and like Johnson, many of the theft clients I’ve represented know that they did something wrong and regret it. As a Miami-Dade criminal defense attorney, I have had great success getting my clients favorable results.

The holidays are a time for forgiveness. With the economy in an acknowledged recession and thousands of families across the U.S. struggling to make ends meet, it seems almost Scrooge-like to prosecute someone like Johnson to the fullest extent of the law. The penalties for second-degree petty theft (the charge for shoplifting goods worth less than $100) in Florida include steep fines and up to 60 days in jail, which could add up to a serious burden for someone desperate enough to steal $5 worth of merchandise. If organized crime poses a much more serious threat, as the article says, perhaps retailers should focus their efforts there instead.