Theft is a crime that can be considered a misdemeanor depending on the amount of goods stolen. In some special cases prosecutors are pursuing more severe charges of burglary, which is a serious felony charge with significantly higher penalties of prison time and fines. This concerning courtroom trend can turn a case of what should be a misdemeanor petty theft into an inescapable felony charge in the worst circumstances.
Burglary is a Much More Severe Charge
Traditionally, thieves who strike at large retailers suffer misdemeanor consequences and are classified as shoplifters. However, in 2016 a Knox County District Attorney decided to go against this standard and classify them as burglars. This has significant implications upon people who could easily be considered petty thieves.
Aside from the technical differences between the acts of burglary and shoplifting, there are substantial differences in the penalties when either takes place. Shoplifting penalties depend on the value of what is stolen. It seems more than reasonable that someone who steals a t-shirt is not subject to the same kinds of penalties as someone who intrudes upon private property with the intention of committing a theft or felony offense.
This problem began to be noticed when a woman was charged after she left a Walmart with a purse stuffed with stolen clothes. She was convicted in 2017 of misdemeanor theft but also with burglary, which is a felony and carries much heavier punishment options. Due to the fact that she was in the store during normal business hours and her attorney was unable to see how the requirements of burglary were satisfied, he took this issue to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Prosecutors argued that since she had been previously banned from the store for shoplifting, she was there unlawfully and therefore a “burglar” on the premises.
Change In Law Attributed to Tennessee Opioid Epidemic
In response to the opioid epidemic within the state, the Legislature passed a bill that allows for repeat shoplifters to face felony theft charges. It seems clear from this that the option for higher sentencing is out there, and lawmakers did not make shoplifting altogether a felony when they had the opportunity to. This further demonstrates that shoplifting should not be subject to these more severe charges. Charging shoplifters with burglary is a way around this.
Some other states have taken this same approach where prosecutors have the absolute discretion to choose between charging with shoplifting and burglary. The possibility depends on each states’ specific laws. In considering if Tennessee also has this ability, some justices have said that it is perfectly fine as long as the language in the statutes is clear.
However, for obvious reasons, some of the justices find there is a big difference between shoplifting and burglary and believe that prosecutors should not have this discretion. Justice Sharon Lee explained this issue best when she told the Knoxville News Sentinel, “So someone can be sentenced to six years for stealing a pack of chewing gum? Is that harsh? Is that what we as a society should be doing?”
The Court has not yet issued a decision on the matter and has not given any indication on when they will. Regardless, it is clear that prosecutors should not be able to subject a petty thief to the same criminal consequences as a burglar. This could be the start of a slippery slope of unreasonable treatment and a lack of any kind of morals within the criminal justice system.
Middle Tennessee Burglary, Theft, or Shoplifting Lawyer
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