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New Jersey laws on shoplifting

This page is provided for information only. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice. If you have a specific problem with shoplifting that you think can be dealt with through legal channels, you should contact a lawyer or your county prosecutor's office. The Crime Prevention Service, the School of Criminal Justice, and/or Rutgers University cannot be held responsible for any action arising from information presented here.

In New Jersey, what acts are counted as shoplifting?

  1. Taking away merchandise with the intention of paying less than the full price to the merchant
  2. Hiding merchandise on your body or something you're carrying with the intention of not paying for it
  3. Removing, altering, or transferring a price tag with the intention of paying less than the full price to the merchant
  4. Transferring merchandise from the container in which it's displayed to another container with the intention of paying less than the full price to the merchant (for example, putting a small item inside a large item and only paying for the larger item)
  5. Under-ringing with the intention of paying less than the full price to the merchant
  6. Removing a shopping cart with the intention of not returning it

Intention? How do I prove someone "intended" not to pay me?

There is a presumption in the law that if you find unpurchased merchandise hidden on someone or in their belongings, that he or she hid it deliberately and intends not to pay for it.

What do I do if I think someone has shoplifted from my store?

You can take someone into custody and detain them in a reasonable manner for a reasonable amount of time if you have probable cause to believe they're deliberately hiding unpurchased merchandise and that you can recover the merchandise by taking them into custody. If you do all this, you can't be found criminally or civilly liable.

What does "detain them in a reasonable manner for a reasonable amount of time" mean?

Ask them to return to the store with you and escort them to a private area. Say that it's about the "Item they seem to have not paid for." To be on the safe side, you should not touch anyone you take into custody, not even a slight tap on the arm. However, if the shoplifter tries to hit you or run away, you can use reasonable force -- that is, enough force to restrain them but not to escalate the situation. If the shoplifter really doesn't want to come with you, you may have to let them leave. Just be sure to get a good description and a license number and call the police. If you do take them into custody, phone the police right away, and the parents if the shoplifter is under age 18. The police like it if all your paperwork on the shoplifting incident is completed by the time they arrive.

What does "probable cause" mean?

Experts on the prevention of shoplifting say that you should fulfill these conditions before taking someone into custody:

  1. see the shoplifter APPROACH, SELECT, and CONCEAL your merchandise;
  2. maintain uninterrupted observation of the shoplifter;
  3. see the shoplifter fail to pay for the merchandise; and
  4. approach the shoplifter OUTSIDE of the store (although some security experts claim that the shoplifter can be detained inside the store if they are past the cash registers).

What are the penalties for shoplifting?

It depends on the "full retail value" of the merchandise that was stolen.

2nd Degree full retail value of $75,000 or more imprisonment of 5-10 years fine up to $150,000
3rd Degree full retail value of over $500 but less than $75,000 imprisonment of 3-5 years fine up to $15,000
4th Degree full retail value of between $200 and $500 imprisonment up to 18 months fine up to $10,000
Disorderly Persons Offense full retail value of under $200 imprisonment up to 6 months fine up to $1,000

Additional mandatory penalties include:

  • for a first offense, at least 10 days of community service
  • for a second offense, at least 15 days of community service
  • for a third or subsequent offense, up to 25 days of community service AND imprisonment for no less than 90 days

Will shoplifters in my store be prosecuted?

It depends. Most of the time, if the shoplifter stole over $2,000 worth of merchandise, county prosecutors can't send the case to municipal court instead.

Does it matter if the shoplifter doesn't have a lawyer?

No, prosecutors have to prosecute all shoplifting offenses even if the defendant doesn't have a lawyer.

Can prosecutors help me get money (civil penalties) from shoplifters?

Prosecutors don't actually work for you, but for the State of New Jersey. They aren't allowed to negotiate for, request or require a defendant to pay you anything. They can request that restitution be ordered, but then it's up to the judge to decide.

Memo from New Jersey Attorney General John Farmer to All County and Municipal Prosecutors, Guidelines on the Prosecution of Shoplifting Offenses, January 16, 2001.

Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey, P.L. 2000, Chapter 16, An Act Concerning Penalties for Shoplifting Offenses, April 28, 2000.

More Shoplifting Resources

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