Stealing (under $500) is a class A misdemeanor in Missouri, for which a judge can sentence you to up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
In addition to the criminal charges that you may face for stealing, Missouri law allows stores to sue shoplifters in civil court for restitution and damages. You will receive a “civil demand letter” in the mail from the store’s attorney claiming that you owe the store $250.
How Can an Attorney Help If You Are Charged With Stealing or Shoplifting?
In many cases, an attorney can get a misdemeanor shoplifting charge reduced to a lesser offense, such as “Littering,” if you have no prior convictions. Depending on the court in which you are prosecuted, it’s possible that all you will have to do is pay a fine and court costs, and you won’t have to appear in court.
Some courts are not so lenient with shoplifters. In those courts, the best option available to you will be an SIS (Suspended Imposition of Sentence) and probation. If you receive an SIS, no conviction will be entered on your permanent criminal record if you successfully complete your period of probation without any further convictions.
In addition, the court may require you to attend a “Theft Offenders” class and perform a few hours of community service. You may also be banned from entering all stores in the chain of stores that you stole from.
What Does the Judge Consider When Sentencing a Shoplifter in Missouri?
The sentence you receive for stealing in Missouri will depend on the following:
- What did you steal? (For example, if you stole a bottle of alcohol, the court may order you to attend an alcohol education program. If you stole ingredients to make meth, then it’s a felony and you could be sentenced to two to seven years in prison.)
- What was the price of the item that you stole?
- Did you immediately return the undamaged item to the store?
- Did you attempt to run away from the store’s security guard?
- How old are you?
- In which county is your case being prosecuted? (In some counties in Missouri, defendants who are not represented by an attorney, and who plead guilty to shoplifting, face a mandatory sentence of 2 days in jail.)
- Do you have prior convictions for theft, stealing, shoplifting, or larceny?
Convictions for Stealing Stay on Your Criminal Record Forever
If you plead guilty to shoplifting, stealing, theft, or larceny, the conviction will remain on your criminal record forever, and you will not be able to get it expunged (removed). Having a conviction for stealing can prevent you from getting a job, renting an apartment, obtaining a loan, or being accepted into a college or graduate school.
Store Owners or Employees Can Detain a Suspected Shoplifter
Missouri law also allows store owners or employees to detain a suspected shoplifter for a “reasonable” period of time, in a “reasonable manner” if the store employee has reasonable grounds or probable cause to believe that the person has stolen, or is in the process of stealing merchandise or cash from the store.
If the security guard detains a shoplifter for more than a reasonable period of time before calling the police or releasing the shoplifter, then the store is at risk of being charged with false imprisonment.
When the police officer issues a ticket for shoplifting, the charge can be described as any one of the following:
- Stealing Under $500
- Petty Larceny
- Theft of Services
You will be given a court date, at which you can choose to appear on your own, or you can hire an attorney to represent you.
Statute of Limitations for Shoplifting in Missouri
The statute of limitations in Missouri for shoplifting is one year for a misdemeanor or three years for a felony. It’s considered a misdemeanor if the value of the item that was stolen is less than $500.
The time period begins when the offense occurs. This means the prosecuting attorney has one year from the date of the alleged shoplifting incident to file charges against a person for a misdemeanor shoplifting charge, or three years for a felony shoplifting charge.
What If the Store Doesn’t Press Criminal Charges?
In some cases, the store manager will not call the police or press criminal charges. Instead, the store will hire an attorney to send the accused shoplifter a “civil demand letter,” demanding that they pay an amount of $100 to $250 to reimburse the store for damages.
Keep in mind that the store can press criminal charges and also sue for civil damages.
Missouri Law Allows Stores to Sue Shoplifters
It is legal for a store to send a civil demand letter to a shoplifter. Missouri (and every other state in the U.S.) has a law that allows retail stores to sue shoplifters to recover damages resulting from shoplifting.
If a store is successful in its lawsuit and wins a judgment against a shoplifter, the shoplifter can be forced to return the stolen merchandise or pay for the item that was stolen or damaged. This law also allows the store to recover an amount of $100 to $250 to reimburse the store for its expenses, such as the cost of hiring a security guard.
Instead of actually filing a civil lawsuit in court against the shoplifter, most stores usually hire a debt collection law firm to send a civil demand letter to the accused shoplifter and make repeated threatening phone calls.
Don’t Pay the “Civil Demand” for Shoplifting
If you have been accused of shoplifting and you receive a civil demand letter from a law firm demanding money, don’t pay it. Many accused shoplifters pay because they don’t know any better. Stores often engage in this type of behavior even if the item is recovered undamaged and they don’t press criminal charges against the shoplifter.
Stores Almost Never Sue Shoplifters
If you refuse to pay in response to the civil demand letter, the store can sue you in court, and if they win a judgment against you, they can garnish your wages to force you to pay. But until the store sues you and wins, you don’t owe them anything.
The cost of hiring an attorney to sue a shoplifter far exceeds the amount of loss to the store. Therefore, it is extremely rare that a store will spend the money to hire an attorney to sue a shoplifter. Often, the item that was stolen is worth a very small amount (a $10 pair of sunglasses from Walmart, for example) and the shoplifter has already given the item back to the store, so the store’s damages are minimal.
Click on this link to read a recent Wall Street Journal article about how often stores send civil demand letters to shoplifters demanding money but rarely file a lawsuit against a shoplifter.
Paying the “Civil Demand” Has No Effect on the Criminal Case
As discussed above, a merchant can press criminal charges against you for stealing and also file a civil lawsuit against you to make you reimburse them for their expenses.
Many people pay the civil demand, thinking that this will resolve their case, but it doesn’t. Whether you pay the civil demand or not will have no effect on your criminal case. The judge in the criminal case will not give you a better “deal” because you paid the civil demand, and you will still have to appear in court or hire an attorney to represent you. The amount of the fine that you will have to pay to the court will not be decreased by the amount of the civil demand that you already paid.
Don’t Return to Store After Shoplifting Conviction
After being convicted of shoplifting, the store that you stole from may prohibit you from returning to their store (or any other store in their entire chain of stores) in the future. You can be charged with trespassing if the store’s security guard catches you in any one of their stores after you have been banned from the premises.