Under Texas law, shoplifting is treated as a form of theft. Every day, dozens of people are arrested and charged with first-time shoplifting in the Greater Houston area. The majority of these cases are filed as misdemeanors. Even so, a misdemeanor shoplifting conviction can have devastating consequences – perhaps more than any other misdemeanor and even many felonies – due to the stigma of theft. Fortunately, there are many ways to keep a first-time shoplifting case off of your record. This article discusses what you can expect from a first-time shoplifting arrest.
What happens if I was cited and released for shoplifting?
In many cases, when you are detained for shoplifting and the police arrive, you may be cited and released, rather than taken to jail. Unfortunately, this does not mean that you will not be charged. Depending on the county, you may be given a summons to appear, or a warrant may be put out for your arrest at a later date. If you have been cited and released for shoplifting, it is very important that you speak to an experienced shoplifting defense lawyer as soon as possible so you avoid missing a court date or having an open warrant. In many cases, a warrant can be resolved without you having to go into custody, but typically only if you act proactively and appear in court to arrange for your bond to be posted.
What level of offense is my shoplifting case?
As noted above, most first-time shoplifting cases filed in the Greater Houston area are filed as misdemeanors. For normal shoplifting cases, the level of offense and potential punishment is based on the value of the merchandise alleged to have been stolen. Under Texas Penal Code 31.03, first-time shoplifting cases are charged under the theft statute as follows:
-A Class C misdemeanor if the value of the property stolen is less than $100;
-A Class B misdemeanor if the value of the property stolen is $100 or more but less than $750;
-A Class A misdemeanor if the value of the property stolen is $750 or more but less than $2,500;
-A state jail felony if the value of the property stolen is $2,500 or more but less than $30,000
-A felony of the third degree if the value of the property stolen is $30,000 or more but less than $150,000, or the property is:
-A felony of the second degree if the value of the property stolen is $150,000 or more but less than $300,000
-A felony of the first degree if the value of the property stolen is $300,000 or more.
What is the financial cost of a first-time theft case?
The costs of a first-time shoplifting case can be divided into the direct costs associated with the case, like bond, lawyer’s fees and court costs, and the indirect costs, like the potential loss of a professional license or a missed job opportunity.
The first direct cost a person will have to pay is bond. The amount of bond you have to pay in a first-time shoplifting case will vary depending on the facts of the case (and the amount alleged to have been stolen), criminal history, and the judge and county the case is assigned to. In Houston, many first-time shoplifting arrests will receive a “PR” bond which means that you will not have to pay any money out of pocket.
The fees for an attorney for a first-time shoplifting case will vary greatly. Many attorneys will charge a very small amount (often several hundred dollars). Many attorneys charging low fees do so because they are inexperienced or run a high-volume business and represent hundreds of clients. Reputable and experienced criminal defense attorneys will charge anywhere from $3000-$7500 for a first-time shoplifting case. Other direct costs in a first-time shoplifting arrest can include a fine and probation fees, if you were to end up on probation.
The indirect costs of a first-time shoplifting conviction can be harder to calculate, but potentially far greater. Being convicted of theft can negatively affect or jeopardize a person’s job or professional license. Even if a person arrested for first-time shoplifting does not have a professional license, a conviction can result in future employers being unwilling to hire the person. This is one of the main reasons why it is essential to do everything possible to keep a first-time shoplifting conviction off of your record.
What will happen in my court appearance for a first-time shoplifting arrest?
The first time you are in court, the court will inquire whether you have an attorney, plan to hire an attorney, or would like to represent yourself (which, as discussed below, is a bad idea). The court may also set bond conditions. You will rarely have to do much and you will not be asked to say anything regarding the alleged shoplifting incident. Your case will rarely be decided on the first setting and you should also not worry about going back into custody for any reason.
What bond conditions can I expect for my first-time shoplifting offense?
The bond conditions you will receive for a first-time shoplifting arrest are usually not too strict. Typically, you will be ordered to not go to the location or business where the goods were allegedly stolen from, avoid drugs and alcohol, and not commit any further offenses. Occasionally, a strict judge may order more onerous conditions, like GPS monitoring, but this is unusual and would typically only ever happen in a felony court where the value of the items alleged to have been stolen is very large.
Do I need to hire an attorney for my first-time shoplifting case?
It is a very good idea to be represented by a lawyer for a first-time shoplifting arrest. An attorney can advocate for you from the first court setting and ensure that you obtain the best result possible, with the least amount of disruption to your life or livelihood. Even if you think that you are guilty, it is still worthwhile to have an attorney challenge the evidence for you and negotiate with the State on your behalf. The stakes in a shoplifting case are very high, and it is critical to have an experienced shoplifting lawyer who can guide you through the process and maximize your chance of keeping the case off of your record.
How soon after an arrest do I need to hire a shoplifting lawyer?
There is no great urgency to hire an attorney after a first-time theft arrest. If you have been cited and released, it is a good idea to consult with an attorney to ensure that your bond situation is under control. It is also not completely necessary to bring an attorney with you to your first court date (the one advantage of bringing an attorney would be having an advocate in the event the judge imposes harsh bond conditions).
You should resist high-pressure sales techniques from attorneys claiming that you must hire them now. An attorney that claims that wants you to believe a disaster will take place if you do not immediately hire them is generally not a trustworthy attorney. It is a good idea to take your time and do your research before hiring a criminal defense lawyer for your first-time shoplifting case.
How do I keep a shoplifting arrest off of my record?
In order to keep a shoplifting case “off of your record” you either need to get it dismissed or go to trial and win. An acquittal or dismissal will generally be eligible for something called an expunction, which is the best possible result in a criminal case, as it causes any record of the arrest to be destroyed.
Shoplifting cases are dismissed when the case itself is problematic for the prosecutors, and they cannot prove a person is guilty, or when a criminal defense attorney can negotiate a dismissal under some conditions. An effective shoplifting defense attorney will have several plans, and backup plans to get a case dismissed. It is necessary to obtain the evidence to challenge the case on the basis of the facts. This can include showing that a defendant had no intent to steal, or sometimes, that a confession was taken illegally.
Even if it appears that the prosecutors can prove the elements of a shoplifting case, an effective criminal defense attorney may still be able to secure a dismissal with the State. Sometimes this can be done informally, where the State might agree to dismiss the case if the client performs some community service or completes a class. In the Houston area, many District Attorney’s offices have programs specifically created for first-time shoplifting offenders. Depending on the county, these programs can be somewhat like being on probation, although they can be significantly shorter, and most importantly, lead to a dismissal upon completion. In Houston, the Retail Theft Diversion program is only 90 days and is available to many first-time shoplifting defendants who are charged with Class “B” theft.
A deferred adjudication probation can also keep a shoplifting case “off of your record” in a way, but it is not as good as an expunction. If a deferred adjudication probation is completed successfully, the court will never enter an affirmative finding of guilt and a person could get his record “sealed” (also known as a “non-disclosure”). Getting a record sealed prevents many private entities from seeing a record of the theft case, but the records are not destroyed and are still accessible to the government or law enforcement.
What happens if the store sends me a letter asking for money after a shoplifting case?
When a person is arrested for shoplifting in Texas, it is common that they will receive a civil demand letter from an attorney representing the store, seeking damages to compensate them for the lost goods or the cost of the investigation. Usually, this is several hundred dollars. Although no one can guarantee what will happen, criminal defense attorneys know from experience that these letters can safely be ignored. It would rarely be in a store’s interest to hire a lawyer to sue a person for a relatively small amount of money. Moreover, many of the law firms that send civil demand letters on behalf of retailers are often not even licensed in the State of Texas.
What if I am not a US citizen and have been charged with first-time shoplifting?
If you are not a US citizen and have been charged with shoplifting, it is even more important that you keep the case off of your record by getting it dismissed. Under Federal Immigration law, theft is considered a type of offense with especially negative repercussions. Although Ceja Law Firm focuses on criminal defense, we regularly work with some of the best immigration attorneys in the Houston area to properly advise our clients regarding the potential immigration consequences of a criminal case, including a first-time theft arrest.
Once my first-time shoplifting case is dismissed, is it immediately off my record?
If your shoplifting case is dismissed, or you are acquitted at trial, you will need to obtain an expunction in order to wipe all records of the arrest off of your record. This does not happen automatically. An expunction is a legal procedure that can be thought of as a lawsuit. After a criminal defense attorney prepares a petition for expunction and the order is signed by the judge, the order is circulated to every agency that has a record of the shoplifting arrest, ordering them to destroy all records of the arrest. The entire procedure can take approximately 6 months. Because an expunction is technical in nature and needs to be done correctly to be effective, it is not a good idea to attempt to do your own expunction.
Attorney Jose Ceja regularly handles first-time shoplifting cases throughout the Greater Houston area, including Harris, Montgomery, Fort Bend, Brazoria, Galveston, Liberty, and Chambers Counties. If you have been charged with shoplifting, attorney Jose Ceja is happy to offer you a free consultation to discuss your situation.