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Can Shoplifting Be Accidental in California?

Can Shoplifting Be Accidental in California?

Can I Get Arrested if I Unknowingly Stole an Item?

We all have bad days. Occasional lapses in judgment don't make us bad people, but in some cases, they can lead to serious unintended penalties. For some, this occurs in stores and shopping centers, where distractions like bustling crowds and noisy children can lead to unintentional theft.

Whether you were in a hurry to leave or forgot about a product you were carrying, it’s crucial to take swift legal action when accused of shoplifting—accidental or otherwise—to avoid life-altering penalties.

Can someone shoplift by accident? When is theft considered “accidental” in California criminal courts? Keep reading to learn more about theft and shoplifting laws in the Golden State.

Shoplifting & Theft Laws in California

In California, shoplifting is defined under Penal Code § 459.5 PC as entering an open business with the intent to steal merchandise worth $950 or less. It’s usually charged as a misdemeanor and punishable by:

  • Up to 6 months in county jail and fines of up to $1,000.

However, recent legislation made changes to these laws in May 2023. Governor Newsom signed a new law where shoplifting can be considered a felony under certain conditions, even if the value of stolen goods is below the $950 limit. Felony shoplifting can result in:

  • Formal probation; and
  • Up to 3 years in county jail and fines of up to $10,000.

Related theft crimes include:

Petty Theft

Petty theft is the stealing of any property with a value of $950 or less. This does not include firearms or automobiles. The maximum punishments for petty theft include a fine of up to $1,000 and a six-month jail sentence.

Grand Theft

Grand theft occurs when the value of the stolen property exceeds $950. This is considered a more serious offense and can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances.


Under current California law, shoplifting that exceeds the $950 threshold can be considered burglary. Burglary involves entering a structure with the intention of committing theft or any felony. This offense can be punishable as a misdemeanor or felony.


Robbery involves the use of force or fear to take personal property from someone else's person or immediate presence. In California, robbery is always a felony, with penalties including imprisonment for 2-5 years.

What if I Shoplift by Accident in California?

While the idea of accidental shoplifting may seem paradoxical, it can still be recognized as valid under California law.

Shoplifting: Understanding Intent

Accidental shoplifting occurs when an individual unintentionally walks out of a store with unpaid merchandise. To be convicted of any shoplifting offense, a key element is the prosecution's ability to prove the offender's intent to permanently deprive the owner of their property without paying for it.

Intent” refers to the purpose or willingness to commit an act, rather than the act itself. If you mistakenly walk out of a store with an unpaid item that you had no intention of stealing, this will likely be a critical component of your defense. If a person genuinely forgets to pay for an item and leaves the store, this could be considered accidental shoplifting.

It's important to keep in mind that proving that the act was accidental can be challenging and can vary drastically on a case-by-case basis. It’s imperative for the accused to consult with a trusted criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible, as they can work closely with you to determine the most effective legal strategy to employ under your unique circumstances.

Generally, proving accidental shoplifting depends on the specific circumstances of the incident. For example, a person who leaves the store with an unbought item in plain sight may have less trouble proving a “lack of intent” in court than a shopper who inadvertently placed an item in their pocket or purse.

This doesn’t mean that proving accidental shoplifting is impossible; however, securing strong representation is a must to avoid a criminal conviction in court.

Defending Against Shoplifting Charges

To prove shoplifting, the prosecution must demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to steal the merchandise. If the defense can raise a reasonable doubt about whether the defendant had the intent to steal, it may be possible to argue that the shoplifting was accidental. Relevant evidence could include CCTV footage, witness testimonies, or the defendant's past shopping behavior.

Avoiding Unintentional Shoplifting

It's crucial to remain attentive and conscientious when shopping to avoid unintentional shoplifting. Always double-check your cart, pockets, and personal belongings before leaving the store to ensure you've paid for all items.

Zealous Advocacy for the Accused in Oakland & Beyond

At the Law Office of Nabiel C. Ahmed, our experienced Oakland attorney is proud to deliver a strong defense to our neighbors throughout the Bay Area. From DUI defense to civil harassment, our firm has the specialized knowledge and skillset to represent your best interests from start to finish while fighting tirelessly to restore your freedom. Don’t let one mistake ruin your future. Reach out to the Bay Area’s top criminal defense law firm to secure aggressive defense and protect your rights today.

Accused of theft in California? Turn to the Bay Area’s top criminal defense attorney. Call (510) 907-6600 to schedule a consultation.