Shoplifting can be charged as two crimes in California. It can be charged as either a theft (petty theft if the property taken is worth less than $400.00, grand theft if greater) or as a second degree commercial burglary, depending on the facts and the evidence.
Shoplifting is usually charged as a misdemeanor, but can be a felony under three sets of circumstances:
1) If the property stolen is worth more than $400.00;
2) If you have a prior conviction for shoplifting;
3) If you use force to escape from the store — in which case the shoplifting can be charged as a robbery.
If the prosecution can prove that you entered the store with the intent to steal property, then shoplifting is prosecuted as a second degree commercial burglary. This is usually proven by showing that you did not have the money or ability to purchase the property, or by showing that you had in your possession tools to facilitate shoplifting, such as a knife for cutting tags, or a “boost bag.”
Most people charged with shoplifting are not actually apprehended by the police. Usually they are apprehended by a store security guard or store employee, and held until the police arrive. Store personnel are permitted to detain you until police arrive, provided that the detention is for “a reasonable time.” The privilege to detain a suspected shoplifter is set forth in California Penal Code Section 490.5. There is no set time, but the court will examine how quickly store security called the police, and the purpose for the detention. Store security is permitted to search you for stolen merchandise, and to detain you long enough to conduct an investigation, but holding someone for five hours in order to obtain a confession is not allowed.
If you resisted store employees or store security when they apprehended you, then you can be charged with robbery under a case called People v. Estes, 147 Cal. App. 3d 23.
Defenses for a shoplifting, theft, or Estes robbery case can be complex, and you should contact an experienced attorney.