It is difficult for many people to imagine being convicted of Petit Larceny, PL 155.25, for stealing items from a department store without ever leaving that store. “How can you prove I was going to steal anything if I’m still inside the store?” You can’t give me a Desk Appearance Ticket for PL 165.40. I never left Century 21 or Sephora! However, protests aside, under the law of the State of New York, not only can a person be convicted of Petit Larceny or Criminal Possession of Stolen Property without ever leaving the store, a person can potentially be convicted of that crime without ever taking the item off the shelf. As strange and illegal as this may seem, a criminal defense attorney and NYC shoplifting lawyer should easily be able to explain how the law allows for such an arrest.
While catching someone who has just left a store with stolen items in their pockets is certainly very solid evidence for a prosecutor, it is not by any means necessary in order for the prosecutor to obtain a conviction after trial. This is, arguably, a sensible thing given the inherent difficulties with Petit Larceny prosecutions, especially in large department stores such as Macy’s in Manhattan, Century 21 in Brooklyn or even an Wholefoods throughout New York City. But still, mistakes and misunderstandings can easily happen when legal standards are reduced. The defendant in the recent case of People v. Webb, 2017 NY Slip Op 27313 (Mt. Vernon City Court, Westchester Co. 2017) argued that exactly such a misunderstanding occurred.
In Webb, the defendant was using a self-checkout terminal at a Target department store. He successfully scanned one item but then, according to the defendant, had difficulty figuring out how to scan the rest of the items in a single transaction. The defendant ultimately paid for the one scanned item and then proceeded to Customer Service by the entrance to get assistance paying for the rest of the items.
The above is an entirely plausible scenario. Even a young, tech-savvy person has likely had problems with a self-checkout terminal at one point or another. Unfortunately for the defendant, however, he was stopped by a Target security agent on his way past the registers, and ultimately arrested for and charged with Petit Larceny for stealing the items that he had not paid for at the self-checkout terminal. At the bench trial, the defendant was ultimately convicted by the judge based, in large part, on surveillance video that the Court held clearly showed the defendant headed for the exit past the point at which he could have headed for Customer Service. This ultimately made for a relatively straight-forward case, according to the judge, despite the plausible version of events offered by the defendant. There are certainly circumstances that leave far more open to interpretation, and the law of the State of New York allows for a conviction of Petit Larceny for far less than the acts taken by the defendant in Webb.
In New York, Petit Larceny is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail. The crime essentially boils down to an intent to steal property coupled with the accused person exercising some amount of control over the property, no matter how minor or fleeting. What this means is that, if a prosecutor can prove that a defendant intended to steal a particular item from a store, and that the defendant put his or her hand on the item while it was on the shelf, that is a completed crime. The difficulty becomes, of course, proving an intent to steal the item without more evidence than just grabbing off the shelf. Leaving the store without paying for the item is the simplest example, but one can think of all kinds of scenarios where there is other remote evidence that proves intent. For example, evidence of a conversation between to people before entering the store that they were going to steal the item, or possessing a bag lined with tin foil that is commonly used to fool the security sensors at the doors of retail stores. However, even for the non-professional, the law is fairly clear that if you possess property inconsistent with the rights of the owner, you are setting yourself for a possible shoplifting arrest even if you never left the store.
The law allows for a great deal of argument and leeway in the context of Petit Larceny and NYC shoplifting arrests, and law enforcement knows that if they can prove intent, they don’t need to prove much else in terms of overt acts. Understanding this is key to formulating an effective legal defense to a Petit Larceny charge, and focusing on the wrong aspects of such a charge can be disastrous.
Crotty Saland PC is a New York criminal defense firm founded by two former Manhattan prosecutors. The New York criminal lawyers at Crotty Saland PC represent clients in Petit Larceny and other theft-related and Desk Appearance Ticket cases throughout the New York City and Hudson Valley region.