I should preface this post by stating that I have handled countless numbers of shoplifting cases and can honestly say that I can’t recall the last time one of my clients pleaded guilty to shoplifting. I have a tremendous record of success with shoplifting cases either by way downgraded charge or dismissal.
That being said, I have noticed that municipal courts all over the state are getting tougher on misdemeanor/disorderly persons shoplifting crimes. In my opinion, it is simply a result of increased retail theft and the need for local municipalities to protect businesses (i.e. Short Hills Mall, Menlo Park, Livingston, Etc.) which account for lots of revenue generating tax dollars. Therefore, it has become increasingly difficult to plea bargain shoplifting offenses pre-trial. This is not to say that a defendant who is represented by competent and experienced counsel will not receive the benefit of an advantageous plea agreement, but I have noticed that it has become necessary to go to trial more often.
Obviously, there are certain situations were an individual who is accused of committing a shoplifting offense is actually guilty and the state has more than sufficient proof to make the case. This may include video, eyewitness testimony, etc. In this type of situation, first offenders committing minor offenses should be afforded some consideration, and not be straddled with the burden of a criminal record. In fact, there is a disturbing dichotomy, considering that a first time offender charged with a more serious theft offense (indictable/felony) would be likely admitted into the pre-trial intervention program at the superior court level. This would result in the ultimate dismissal of the charges following the completion of this program. Yet this remedy is not available to the person who has committed a less serious theft offense at the municipal court level. It makes no sense, especially when municipal prosecutors are less willing to negotiate downgraded offenses, such as municipal ordinance violations.
Most municipalities have locally enacted municipal ordinance violations. These are not criminal offenses and do not appear on a criminal record. The decision to extend a plea offer of this nature is prosecutor discretion, but these days it seems to be more court policy not to do so.
This leaves the defendant in a somewhat uncomfortable position. However, it does limit the choices. There is a presumption of non-imprisonment for first time shoplifters, meaning that even if the defendant was found guilty at trial , the state would have to overcome that presumption at sentencing. Therefore, the likelihood of a first time shoplifter going to jail even if found guilty is relatively small. What benefits could you receive by pleading guilty? Maybe a guarantee of no jail and no probation, but in the grand scheme of things is that enough for the defendant not to go to trial and take his best shot when there is no plea offer available and the defendant has defenses to the charge, even if those defenses are limited?
For these reasons, I must strongly suggest that a defendant accused of shoplifting contact an experienced NJ shoplifting lawyer. Unlike other minor offenses, the stigma of a shoplifting conviction on your criminal record may really cause long-term problems for employment or immigration.