Penal Code 459.5 PC - Shoplifting Laws in California

California Penal Code 459.5 PC defines the misdemeanor crime of shoplifting as entering an open business intending to steal merchandise valued at $950 or less.

PC 459.5 is always a misdemeanor offense carrying up to six months in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000. If you have prior theft convictions, the penalties will increase.

Shoplifting Laws in California – Penal Code 459.5 PC

PC 459.5 says, “(a) Notwithstanding Section 459, shoplifting is defined as entering a commercial establishment with intent to commit larceny while that establishment is open during regular business hours, where the value of the property that is taken or intended to be taken does not exceed nine hundred fifty dollars ($950). Any other entry into a commercial establishment intending to commit larceny is burglary. Shoplifting shall be punished as a misdemeanor, except that a person with one or more prior convictions for an offense specified….”

The traditional shoplifting crime occurs when someone enters a store, puts items under their clothing, and walks out without paying. The crucial element of the crime in a shoplifting case is intent.

If you are arrested and cited by police for shoplifting, you will generally receive a “civil demand letter” stating that you must pay the retailed restitution or you will be sued in court.

Under California Penal Code 490.5 PC, a business owner who is the victim of shoplifting can make a civil demand for damages. The civil demand letter says that you must pay restitution to the business owner for stolen merchandise or damaged items.

These letters are typically written and sent by a law firm that the business owner retained, and they will request up to a $500 recovery cost. Let's review this state law in more detail below.

What Does the Law Say?

As noted, shoplifting is described as entering an open commercial business intending to commit larceny during regular business hours. The property's value, or intended to be stolen, is $950 or less.

California Penal Code 459.5 PC Shoplifting

Suppose you enter a closed commercial business with the intent to commit theft. In that case, you could be charged with Penal Code 459 PC burglary.

You could be found guilty of PC 459.5 shoplifting if the prosecution can prove all of the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, that includes the following:  

  • you entered an opened business during regular hours, and
  • you had the intent to steal merchandise worth $950 or less;

It does not have to be proven that you left the store with the merchandise to be charged with shoplifting. But, again, the essential factor in establishing their case is the defendant's criminal intent, which is often challenging.

Prosecutors typically rely on the defendant's behavior after they enter the store. Shoplifters use common tactics. The prosecutor's primary point to prove in a shoplifting case is the perpetrator's criminal intent, but how do they prove what you were thinking when you entered the store?

If someone's actions within the store make it appear that they are attempting to steal something, then that evidence can be used to prove an intent to steal.

As noted, if somebody enters a store after business hours intending to steal, they will typically face charges under other laws like Penal Code 459 PC burglary or Penal Code 602 PC trespassing.  The related crimes are:

In 2021, legislators in California created a new felony crime called “organized retail theft,” which occurs when two or more people act together (in concert) to steal merchandise or with the intent to sell, exchange, or return it.

What Are the Penalties for PC 459.5?  

As noted, PC 459.5 shoplifting is a misdemeanor crime with a maximum of 6 months in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

If convicted of stealing merchandise from an open business valued over $950, you could be charged with Penal Code 487 PC grand theft. If convicted of felony grand theft, it carries up to three years in jail and a maximum fine of $10,000.

Further, felony penalties will be imposed by the judge if you have a prior conviction for any of the following:

  • a crime requiring Penal Code 290 PC sex offender registration;
  • a sex crime with a minor under 14 using force, violence, or threats;
  • Penal Code 191.5 PC gross vehicular manslaughter;
  • Penal Code 187 PC murder, attempted murder, or solicitation;
  • a serious or violent felony punishable by life in prison or death.

Victimized business owners often make civil demands under California Penal Code 490.5 PC. A civil demand requires the defendant to pay restitution to repay the business owner for stolen or damaged items. These letters are sent by law firms representing the business owners and often demand up to $500 to recover costs incurred by the alleged shoplifting.

Before Proposition 47 was passed in 2014, perpetrators faced Penal Code 459 burglary charges with felony penalties. Now, you must be charged with misdemeanor PC 459.5 shoplifting. Anybody convicted of burglary before the new who committed shoplifting can apply for resentencing.

What Are the Defenses for PC 459.5?

Shoplifting charges require a specific criminal intent to steal items from a store before entry. Perhaps we can argue that you developed the plan to steal after you entered the business. While you could still be convicted of petty theft, it could help you avoid a shoplifting conviction.

Defenses for Shoplifting in California

Suppose you should have paid for an item or were planning to pay for things you were carrying in a bag inside the store. In that case, we could raise a mistake defense argument. On the other hand, perhaps we can argue that you made an honest error and intended to pay for the merchandise. 

If the guilt of shoplifting is not in doubt, perhaps we can use other strategies to obtain the best possible outcome. For example, you may be eligible for a diversion program, which requires you to follow certain conditions, such as community service hours and paying full restitution to the victim.

After you complete the diversion program, your charges will be dropped, and you will not have a conviction on your record.

Perhaps you can reach a civil compromise, a legal agreement between you and the victimized business. You would have to agree to repay the costs suffered by the victim due to the theft or attempted theft. In exchange, the business owner will agree not to pursue prosecution against you.

Perhaps we can negotiate with the prosecutor prefiling to convince them not to file formal charges in the first place (DA reject). You can contact our law firm for a free case evaluation by phone or contact form. The Hedding Law Firm is located in Los Angeles, California.