In Massachusetts and many other states, businesses are legally allowed to assess civil penalties against individuals whom they have caught shoplifting within their establishment. These penalties are in addition to any legal ramifications, such as fines, that a court may place on someone when they are found to be guilty of shoplifting. Currently the Commonwealth of Massachusetts can issue a fine of up to $250.00 to a first time offender and up to $500.00 for a second offense to an individual found guilty of shoplifting. In the case of high value products additional charges that may lead to additional fines or jail sentences can be filed. Meanwhile private retailers are legally allowed to pursue civil penalties up to $500.00 for each offense, regardless of the value of the product that was stolen. Although the intention of these civil penalties is clear, to help retailers recover any loses that they incur as a result of shoplifting and at the same time deter the act in their establishments, unfortunately in some cases the law is being taken advantage of. Often times the first time offenders that are caught for shoplifting and fined under these laws are minors. This leaves their parents financially responsible for the actions of their children, and as seen above the penalties can be expensive.
An entire business has grown out from around these laws and it often takes an unfair advantage of those who were caught stealing something of little value, who are often minors. Certain companies have partnered with retailers and make a living off of threatening all those caught shoplifting with legal action if they don’t pay the $500 civil penalty. At the same time, other law firms are marketing themselves to the defendants of such claims to represent them against the civil and legal penalties. As many people know, hiring an attorney is an expensive undertaking, and with that families of the offender are left with a choice to either pay the pricey penalties or pay for an attorney to negotiate on their behalf. Although it is a necessary part of our society to punish those who have done wrong, the way this law is currently written it places an overly harsh penalty on those who are caught shoplifting something of little value which often causes their families to suffer.
In an effort to curb these practices of charging excessive fees when an individual is caught shoplifting something of little value, Representative Brownsberger has filed legislation to bring civil penalties more in line with the crime. Under his bill, House 409, retailers would be entitled to collect a civil penalty equal to the value of the product stolen plus a fine of fifty dollars. This bill would only impact those charged with shoplifting of lower priced items and are not facing any additional criminal charges arising from the same incident. The goal is to help those who under current laws can face overly harsh punishment and more importantly shield their families from excessive financial penalties.
-Robert P. Reardon Jr
Legislative Intern, Office of State Representative William N. Brownsberger
The following websites were used to gather the information in this post and can provide some additional facts about shoplifting laws in Massachusetts.