Thefts from employee break-room refrigerators and cupboards are a common work place annoyance, yet few people stop to think that this is not merely rude and inconsiderate behavior, but an actual crime. Recently, a Pennsylvania man from the Lehigh Valley was so fed up with his food being stolen, that he called the police to report a theft of his Jello-snack from the communal fridge. Rather than laughing away the complainant, the Upper Macungie Township Police are investigating the matter.
If you watched a recent episode of the ABC sitcom, "The Goldbergs," you would have been led to believe that retail theft in Pennsylvania is a minor inconvenience and embarrassment resulting in nothing more than being banned from the store in question. In the episode "Shopping," which aired on December 3, 2013, mother Bev Goldberg abuses her daughter Erica's employee discount at Gimble's department store, to the point that Erica risks being fired. Erica retaliates by slipping an unpaid item into Bev's shopping bag, leading mall security to nab her when an alarm goes off as she exits the store.
A 50 year old, female attorney is behind bars, unable to post bail on a Lebanon County, Pennsylvania robbery charge. Kathy Laurino Yeatter is accused of robbing the Sunoco A-Plus Market on Routes 72 and 419 in West Cornwall Township on November 12, 2013. She was taken into custody without incident shortly after police pulled over her vehicle in response to a 911 dispatch.
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.
The classic retail theft scenario involves hiding items, and then walking right out the front door of a store without paying for them. Yet not all retail thefts follow this pattern. Under Pennsylvania law, one form or retail theft involves consuming or tampering with items in a store without paying for them. In German, there is even a term for such behavior, which is not surprising, as the German language seems to have a term for every concept. It is called Mundraub, which translates to something like "mouth robbery." Although, retail theft is legally quite distinct from a robbery, I still love the imagery evoked by the term.
I usually appear before the three magisterial district judges here in State College, Pennsylvania several times a week, so I often see summary offense trials while waiting for my own clients' cases to be called. One of the most painful things for me to watch is a pro se defendant in a summary trial. It is like being a life guard trapped behind a glass screen, while watching a person who can't swim drown before my eyes. In case you are unfamiliar with the term "pro se," it means a defendant representing himself. A recent pro se defendant I saw before Judge Carmine Prestia provided a text book case of what can go wrong when a person is foolish enough to try to represent himself. The defendant was charged with retail theft at McLanahan's on College Avenue. His defense was not that he did not commit the retail theft, but rather that it was unfair that he had been charged. Yes, you read that right. In an animated tone, he expressed the inherit unfairness of being handcuffed in the middle of a busy day in front of hundreds of fellow Penn State students and driven to the Centre County Correctional Facility for fingerprinting. He asserted that his treatment was unfair, because he had heard of other people caught shoplifting being able to pay for the merchandise, and being released without the police being called. To bolster this argument he tried to testify that he heard of another student who was caught stealing at the Allen Street McLanahan's that same day, but was not charged. Judge Prestia correctly noted that this was both triple hearsay and not relevant to the case before him.
Summary offenses are the least serious criminal offenses under Pennsylvania law. Common summary offenses include underage drinking, public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief and a first offense retail theft. Although these offenses are not nearly as serious as misdemeanors or felonies, they are criminal offenses nonetheless, and accordingly, they carry the possibility of jail time, in addition to fines and court costs. The maximum penalty for a summary offense under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code is 90 days in county jail.
People are often surprised when I tell them that there is more crime per square foot at America's Wal-Marts than in the worst inner-city ghettos. Of course, the reason for the high crime rate at Wal-Mart is due to retail thefts, credit card/ access device fraud, bad checks, forgery and theft by deception in the form of fraudulent returns. While these are the usual crimes one would expect at a mega-retailer, one does not expect to encounter a semen-throwing mad man!
I have lost track of how many calls I have received from a frantic recent college graduate, who has just been fired from her new job, after the company obtained her criminal background check. The caller goes on to explain that she pled guilty to a retail theft while a student at Penn State. Usually, the item in question was valued at under $10. The caller goes on to say that a lady at the magisterial district court told her it was no big deal, it was "just like a traffic ticket," and if she pled guilty, there would just be a fine and court costs. (I use feminine prepositions here because retail theft is one of the only crimes, which females commit as often as, if not more often, than males).