I was in Stater Brothers last week shopping for groceries and proceeded to the checkout stand to pay for my selection. I laid everything on the conveyer belt and pulled my wallet out of my pocket to pay for my goods. I noticed the customer in front of me had her groceries in her reusable shopping bags and didn’t take out all fifteen bottle of Gatorade from two of several bags that she had in her shopping cart and just handed one of the bottles to the check out clerk to scan and told him that would be more convenient. Just then the manager walked up and proceeded to tell this customer to take all her bottles out of the bags and lo and behold, there were numerous other items underneath the Gatorade bottles that were hiding and which this customer clearly had hidden and had no intention of paying for. Or so it would seem. As an attorney I thought to myself, “I wonder if the manager is going to call law enforcement and have her arrested?” While this would certainly have been a possibility, the customer apologized and ended up paying for everything that was discovered by the store manager hidden under the bottles. She certainly appeared to have dodged a bullet. Every theft case has unique facts but the fact that she apologized and seemed a little scatterbrained and the fact that she in fact had the money to purchase all the items and did in fact pay for them worked in her favor.
Sometimes, that isn’t enough. With those same facts the police are often called out and make an arrest and take the suspect into custody or issue a criminal citation to appear in court. Remember, it is the intent of the perpetrator not whether they were successful. Let’s say for example that the suspect had a screaming baby in her hands and was visibly frustrated and seemed very distracted and told the manager that she forgot the items were underneath the bottles of Gatorade and then promptly paid for those items. Let ‘s also assume that there was a undercover security officer working upstairs monitoring the floor of the store with theft prevention cameras and saw this same person on one of his screens in his office and from the footage of the surveillance video the person can be seen looking left and right down the aisle numerous times in an apparent attempt to verify no one was looking before she put the hidden items in her shopping cart. Now she has a problem and will probably face charged in court.
It is these types of cases where legal assistance can benefit in ways that can have lifelong consequences. Even where there doesn’t seem to be any chance of getting a case dismissed or avoiding a theft on one’s record many courts have other options available to the defendant that can avoid a theft conviction on. Some courts offer diversion programs to certain individuals who qualify and with successful completion of the program, the case is dismissed. This isn’t offered to everyone and having an attorney can go a long way to negotiating this result.
Another possible way to get a theft case dismissed is with a civil compromise. Pursuant to Penal Code section 1377 and 1378, the legislature has provided a way to “settle” a case and have it dismissed provided the victim states to the court that all damages have been paid for and the district attorney agrees to dismiss the case thereupon. These civil compromises are tricky to get but they can be gotten in certain circumstances and with an experienced attorney who knows what type of cases lend themselves to a civil compromise.
It is also important to remember that it isn’t always easy for the District Attorney to prove that the defendant had an intent to steal. That is the central element of the crime of theft. Some cases are borderline cases and as such, particularly for someone with no criminal history, can be difficult to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Remember, a defendant does not have to prove his innocence: it is on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Always consult with a professional criminal lawyer before you plead guilty.