Interviewer: What kinds of people come to you when they’ve been accused of shoplifting?
Sam Sachs: There’s always the teenager that does it for a thrill, but surprisingly, by and large, the profile of the average shoplifter is someone that’s going through some type of emotional turmoil. Frequently, it’s a woman in her 40s or 50s suffering from empty nest syndrome or some kind of psychological problems or a bad marriage, and it’s a cry for help. It also can be a man of similar age going through stress such as a divorce or loss of a job.
I was told that when I first started practicing law and I didn’t understand it, but after 30-some-odd years of doing this, that is the typical shoplifter that I represent.
Interviewer: So it’s more women than men?
Sam Sachs: It’s more women than men, and usually for relatively trivial amounts of stuff. It’s a vicarious thrill. It’s also a cry for help. If you think about it, if you’re having difficulty getting attention from a successful spouse or you don’t have your kids to look after anymore and you’re feeling lonely, there’s a little bit of a thrill associated with it, and of course once they’re accused, usually the spouse marches in and tries to help them, protect them, and get them legal counsel.
Lots of times people are in denial about it, but that is the profile of the majority of shoplifters. Of course, men do it also. Very frequently there is a psychological component to it. Of course, there are people that shoplift because they need money for drugs and people who shoplift because they’re kids and they just think they’re getting away with something.
The huge majority of shoplifters are people that have some type of turmoil in their lives and it’s a cry for help.
Interviewer: So it’s people that don’t even need to save money. They have the money to pay for the thing they stole.
Sam Sachs: If I think of all the hundreds of shoplifters that I’ve represented or cases that I heard when I was a judge. I can think of maybe a couple where people stole something because they needed it, because they were starving, because they were freezing. It’s almost never that. Lots of times people steal things they have no use for.
Sam Sachs: You don’t usually have somebody that steals a loaf of bread because they’re hungry, except in old movies. It’s so rare it’s ridiculous.
Interviewer: How do the courts perceive those people, if that’s the circumstance? Do they feel bad for them?
Sam Sachs: I don’t think the courts judge them as people. That’s an interesting question. The courts don’t judge people. Courts judge the things that they do. They don’t declare that you are a bad person. They declare you a shoplifter. Lots of times if the case is presented properly, I can make the court understand what the circumstances were that led up to it, and there’s a real possibility of leniency. Sometimes I can convince a store not to prosecute, especially if there’s a psychological component.
It’s a crime, and in some jurisdictions where there are malls and there are hundreds of stores, it’s such a bad problem that in several local malls they actually have police substations to stop having the police go back and forth to the station all the time.
There’s another class of shoplifter and those are people that do it as a living. They’ll bring a pack of six or seven people to the mall, usually from outside the area. They will all steal as much stuff as they can, load it into bags, and beat feet out of the mall, hopefully without getting detected. That is a whole other class of shoplifting. That is much more rare but it happens. They’ll come down in packs. When I say they “come down,” I use that expression because lots of time they’ll come from out of state. They figure there’s less of a chance of getting detected. But that’s a much smaller percentage.
One of the quirks of New Jersey law is that if you commit a violent act when you’re in the process of shoplifting, it now goes from a theft offense to a robbery, and so it could jump up to a very serious indictable offense or, as they say in some states, a felony.
For example, somebody takes pliers out of Sears. The store clerk says, “Hey, wait a second,” and starts running after him and the guy that took the pliers turns around and pushes the store clerk and he falls over. Now the situation has gone from shoplifting to a robbery, which is much more serious.
Interviewer: Can you think of any other ways that these turn into robberies unintentionally?
Sam Sachs: I don’t know if they’re unintentional or not. The act of shoving somebody when they’re chasing you is probably intentional.
There are three things that constitute shoplifting in New Jersey. One is changing a price tag. That’s shoplifting. Two: if you conceal merchandise while in the store with the intent to deprive the owner of the value, that is considered shoplifting, even if you never leave the store. I slip it in my pocket. I drop it in a bag. Women put it in their purse. Even if they don’t leave the store, that’s shoplifting.
Then the third thing we consider shoplifting in New Jersey is actually removing an item from the store with the intent to deprive the owner of its value. All those things constitute shoplifting, and the jurisdictional limit means the amount that makes it a disorderly persons offense has to be under $200.
If it’s over $200 and less than $500, it becomes a fourth-degree indictable offense. Again, indictable offenses are roughly equivalent to what they call felonies in other states and that’s punishable by up to 18 months in jail.
If it goes over $500, the next jurisdictional limit makes it a third-degree crime, and it goes up the ladder. It can become a more serious crime. The jurisdictional amount makes a difference.
If somebody goes in and takes, let’s say, four $55 items, it’s not a disorderly persons offense anymore, it’s a fourth degree indictable offense. It’s a big jump. A third-degree crime goes from $500 to $75,000. A third degree crime is punishable by up to five years in jail.
It used to be if you took a $40,000 fur out of a store, it was shoplifting. It was a disorderly persons offense. Now it’s based on the value of the merchandise, and people can really get jammed up.
Interviewer: Now the threshold could easily be a cell phone or an iPad or something like that.
Sam Sachs: Actually those are usually not what’s taken, because the loss prevention control on those are very strict. They have electronically encoded bars that set alarms off and things like that, but sometimes it’s just a sleight of hand at a jewelry department. There will be a couple of people that go in and one of them is diverting attention while the other steals something. People are not usually very clever about the way they take these things. They’re walking around and thinks nobody is looking but almost all the major retailers have very fine video surveillance systems and some of those shiny panels up in the ceilings are actually one-way mirrors where there are catwalks so they can follow people around.
I always joke that they could read the label inside your shirt if they had a direct shot, so it’s amazing the quality of the videotape we get sometimes. Sometimes it shows nothing, but sometimes it’s very damning.
The other thing is that the Miranda rights don’t apply when you’re being interrogated by a store employee. Lots of times a store detective will say, “Okay, we do this the easy way or the hard way. You can just confess and I won’t call the police and we’ll get it over with. You give us the stuff back.” Then of course people confess and then they call the police.
It’s an interesting area of the law.