California Shoplifting Lawyer, Los Angeles Theft AttorneyWhen does shoplifting become robbery under California Law?  When can things escalate to more serious felony charges like burglary, or felony theft?  It seems that many people who are not career criminals have often times been caught for shoplifting whether it be a teenager stealing some gum or a mother stealing baby formula to feed their child.   In California, a conviction for shoplifting is usually a misdemeanor and at times an experienced criminal defense attorney can try and obtain some type of diversion deal from a prosecutor where the person arrested has a small and/or no prior record.   Diversion or deferred entry of judgment essentially means that no conviction is entered against a person for a certain amount of time (usually 18 months) and if that person successfully completes the conditions of the probationary period, the charges will be dismissed and there will be no conviction on a person’s record.   Problems arise when a shoplifter attempts to steal a very expensive item and/or struggles with a security guard or store employee in an attempt to avoid being detained.

When a Shoplifter Becomes a Robber Under CA Law

Under California Penal Code section 211, a person is guilty of committing the crime of Robbery when they take the property of another by means of force or fear.    In 1983, the California Court of Appeal found in the case of People v. Estes (1983) 147 Cal.App.3d 23 , 194 Cal.Rptr. 909, that a shoplifter is guilty of the crime of robbery if they use force or fear to escape a store after the taking of the property.     California courts have explained that the force needed to be convicted of an Estes robbery must be more than the incidental touching necessary to take the property.  See People v. Garcia (1996) 45 Cal.App.4th 1242, 1246

[53 Cal.Rptr.2d 256] [noting that the force employed by a pickpocket would be insufficient].  However, if there is any type of physical struggle with a security guard or store employee that a shoplifter uses to escape with stolen property, they are subject to being arrested and charged for robbery.

The consequences of being charged and convicted of Robbery, a felony in California can be severe.   In most circumstances, a robbery in California that resulted out of a shoplifting incident is considered a second degree robbery.   However a conviction of second degree robbery exposed a defendant of a sentence of up to 5 years in state prison.   Often times, the circumstances of the crime and the criminal history of the person convicted will dictate the sentence in a shoplifting case that turned into a robbery.   Given the serious consequences that a felony robbery conviction can have it is essential that a person arrested for an Estes robbery or any other robbery hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer who can explore all possible defenses and dispositions that the law in California allows to a defendant charged with robbery. 

California Definition of Commercial Burglary

Depending on the facts of a case, many times a prosecutor who does not believe a small struggle to leave a store should result in a Robbery charge will charge a person with commercial burglary, which is also a felony in California.   To be guilty of commercial burglary, a prosecutor must prove that a person entered a commercial business with intent on stealing another’s property.    Commercial burglary is a “wobbler” under California Penal Code section 459, which means it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony under the discretion of the prosecutor.  Often times  if a person is caught stealing or attempting to leave a commercial business with an expensive item, usually over $400.00 in value, a district attorney will charge that person with felony commercial burglary.  In many instances, a criminal defense attorney in California will have a better chance at getting a commercial burglary reduced to a misdemeanor or even dismissed as opposed to a charge of felony robbery in California.   It is very important that a person charged with commercial burglary in California whether it be in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside or San Diego County consult with a criminal defense attorney who has experience working on shoplifting cases including those leading to charges of robbery or commercial burglary.

Felony Grand Theft Under CA Penal Code

Another way a standard shoplifting charge can turn from a misdemeanor petty theft charge to a felony charge is if the property taken has a value of $400.00 or more.   Petty theft is usually charged as a misdemeanor (unless a person has prior petty theft convictions) and is defined as stolen property worth less than $400.00.  Penalties for petty theft can include up to 6 months in jail and a fine.  Grand theft can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony and includes stolen property with a value exceeding $400.00.   If you are convicted of grand theft, you can face jail or even prison time.

In many instances, if a person goes into a store and is got taking a lot of items or items with values far exceeding $400.00, a prosecutor will use his or her discretion to charge that shoplifter with felony grand theft in California.    Whether a person can properly assert a defense to such charges or get the charges reduced to a misdemeanor or have them subject to a diversionary sentence often times depends on the skill and experience of the attorney hired to defend that person.   As such, the first thing a person arrested for shoplifting should do whether they are facing felony or misdemeanor charges is consult with a California criminal defense attorney who has handled such cases in a California Superior Court.

Additional Resources:

Criminal Jury Instruction Defining “Robbery”

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Los Angeles and California Theft Crimes Lawyer