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Does Maryland need to reconsider its approach to shoplifting?

Every day, people across Maryland find themselves in the unenviable position of facing shoplifting charges. While many might discount the punishment of shoplifting as nothing more than just a slap on the wrist, this is actually far from the reality.

Indeed, an assistant public defender in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender recently penned a fascinating opinion piece in which he discussed how the punishments for shoplifting are typically very severe with a theft of $100 in merchandise resulting in a 90-day jail sentence, and a theft of $1,000 resulting in an 18-month jail sentence.

Furthermore, those convicted of shoplifting are required to either provide the storeowner a full refund or return the stolen merchandise.

Interestingly enough, he also discussed an element of shoplifting of which most people are likely unaware, and which can take a very significant toll on those for whom petty retail theft seemed like their only option.

Indeed, the element he discusses are the state's civil recovery laws.

These civil recovery laws essentially enable an affected storeowner to file a private lawsuit against the alleged shoplifter for additional payment.

For example, storeowners in Maryland can sue to recover double the price tag of the stolen item (up to a $1,000 maximum), such that they could potentially recoup up to three times when victimized by shoplifting: the return of the stolen merchandise or its original value from the criminal proceeding plus twice its value in civil proceedings.  

While touted as a means of reimbursing storeowners who often go uncompensated for theft, the public defender points out just what is so flawed with these civil recovery laws:

  • They require parents to make these payments on behalf of their children caught shoplifting.
  • They dictate that if offenders ignore demand letters from the storeowner, they must cover all of the storeowner's associated legal costs.
  • They largely benefit big-box retailers who have the extensive legal department needed to file these demand letters.
  • They are not dependent upon a finding of guilt, such that even if an offender is found not guilty in criminal court, they can still be sued.

While the public defender indicates that those caught shoplifting should not simply be let off the hook, he does argue convincingly for the state to consider a more equitable approach than civil recovery laws.

For instance, he suggests following the lead of states like New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Tennessee in making shoplifting a purely civil matter, such that an offender is ordered to provide reimbursement for the merchandise taken. This approach, he argues, would ensure that justice is served and the storeowner is made whole again, while also preserving court resources and not unduly punishing the offender, who likely acted out of desperation in the first place.

What are your thoughts on this opinion piece? Do you agree?

Source: The Baltimore Sun, "Shoplifting punishment doesn't fit the crime," David Rangaviz, Dec. 3, 2014

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