As a criminal defense lawyer with an office two blocks away from Penn State University, I get calls every day from otherwise intelligent students who suffered a momentary lapse of judgment. Although most lapses of judgment occur when drunk, retail theft is a crime which is usually committed by sober people. Among college students, it tends to be a crime of opportunity with no pre-planning, while professional shoplifters, known as "boosters," have elaborate systems to avoid detection. Not surprisingly, it is the non-professionals who are most likely to be caught by store security.
For many Penn State students accused of shoplifting, it is their first experience with the criminal justice system. After the shock of being handcuffed and taken to Centre County Correctional Facility has worn off, they must deal with the summary citation by either pleading guilty or not guilty at the Magisterial District Court. The natural thing to do is to ask the court employees some questions about the citation.
The ladies who work at magisterial district courts are not supposed to give legal advice, but they do so time and time again. Unfortunately, it is often very bad advice. I have clients tell me all the time, "the lady at the judge's office said that this retail theft charge is no big deal. It is just like a traffic ticket, I don't need a lawyer and I can just plead guilty and pay a fine." Fortunately, the defendants who relate this to me had the sense to actually call a criminal defense attorney, which allows me to explain just how utterly wrong that advice is. Other defendants call me two or three years later, shocked to discover that the retail theft charge from freshman year just popped up on a criminal background check, even though "the lady at the judge's office told me this was like a traffic ticket and was no big deal."
First of all, retail theft is a criminal offense, not a traffic offense. The retail theft statute falls under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, as do other summary offenses like disorderly conduct, criminal mischief, public drunkenness and underage drinking. The penalty for criminal summary offenses is up to 90 days in jail as well as fines and court costs. Secondly, retail theft is a "fingerprintable offense." That means that if you are charged with retail theft, you will be fingerprinted and photographed. You will then be in various criminal data bases, including those maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police and the FBI's National Criminal Information Center, usually referred to as NCIC. In short you will have a criminal record. By contrast, you will not have a criminal record for traffic tickets like running a stop sign or speeding.
Retail theft can be graded as either a summary offense, misdemeanor or felony, depending upon the value of the merchandise and the number of prior convictions a defendant has. No matter what the grading of the offense, you should always consult with an experienced, local criminal defense attorney if charged with retail theft, because it is "a big deal" after all. Even if you are factually guilty, there are times that a skilled lawyer can help you avoid a conviction.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/Retail-Theft.shtml