Magazine article Security Management

Prosecuting Shoplifters: Stealing the Show

Magazine article Security Management

Prosecuting Shoplifters: Stealing the Show

Article excerpt


SHOPLIFTING IS A CRIME OF INTENT. There is no one act or series of acts that a shoplifter does or fails to do that will render him or her guilty automatically. The mere removal of merchandise from a store does not in and of itself constitute theft. For the act to be a theft it is necessary to prove the person intended to steal the goods. It is not against the law to be absentminded, preoccupied, senile, distraught, under the influence of prescription drugs, or incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. Any of the above, if demonstrated to the satisfaction of the court, can mitigate the charge of theft.

Most court cases involving the prosecution of a shoplifter are resolved without requiring the witness--the apprehending loss prevention agent or store employee--to make an appearance in court. The shoplifter enters a plea of guilty, nolo contendere--a plea without admitting guilt but may result in a conviction, or guilty to a lesser offense such as trespassing. Most shoplifters brought to court have pleaded guilty, and consequently few loss prevention agents have had to testify. A guilty plea is obviously the desired result because of the saving of time and effort expended in trial. Inevitably, however, certain cases will go to trial and thus require accurate and comprehensive testimony from witnesses.

Sometimes the accused in the courtroom is a much different person than the one apprehended in the store. When the shoplifting incident occurred the accused might have been unwashed, uncooperative or belligerent, profane, or threatening. When the accused shows up for trial he or she may present himself or herself as a pleasant, well-groomed individual armed with character references.

The witness--the loss prevention agent or other employee who apprehended a shoplifter--who requested prosecution may be entirely sure the person intended to steal and is therefore guilty. But how does he or she convince the court the accused is guilty?

The witness must do this through testimony. Essentially, the testimony must show how the conduct of the accused differed from the conduct of an otherwise reasonable and prudent person under the same circumtances. The witness saw the shoplifter's actions first-hand, but the jury will see those actions only through the witness's description of what happened. And, the witness's version will be rebutted by the shoplifter's version if he or she decides to take the stand and testify in his or her own behalf.

Since the judge and jury were not in the place of the incident, the outcome of the case will be determined by the testimony of the witness. Although what the witness says is of great importance, the way he or she says it may be of greater importance. If the shoplifter is more convincing than the witness, the jury will be persuaded accordingly even though the shoplifter is lying. Uncertainty or confusion on the part of the prosecution's witness will breed doubt, and doubt must be resolved in favor of the accused.

A witness can be made ready for a court appearance in many ways. Prior to the court date, supervisors can explain court procedures to the witness and arrange for a moot court where the flavor of a trial can be produced. Also, actually attending a trial to soak up the atmosphere goes a long way in educating the witness.

A witness's level of professionalism will be indicated by his or her demeanor on the stand and by his or her grasp of the facts pertaining to the case. …

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