Shoplifting and Theft

The topics in the Dial-A-Law series provide general information on legal issues within the Province of Alberta. The purpose of this topic is to inform you of your legal rights and responsibilities. This is not legal advice. If you require legal advice, you should contact a lawyer.

This topic will discuss the crime of theft, and shoplifting.

Theft

Theft occurs when a person takes items that are owned by another person without the owner’s consent. The items taken must have an owner. The items taken do not have to be of value. Theft is defined in section 322 of the Criminal Code.

It is not theft to take items which have been abandoned or have no owner. This includes items that have been thrown in the garbage. Note that it is unlikely that items of value are abandoned or ownerless. For example, if you remove empty bottles from someone’s property without their consent, this can be considered theft.

If a person intends to steal items and starts to do so, without completing the act, they can be charged with theft.

In order to be convicted of theft, a Crown prosecutor must prove all of the essential elements of the offence beyond a reasonable doubt. This means the Crown prosecutor must demonstrate that (a) the person took or converted (legalese for changed) the goods and (b) that they intended to take the items from the owner.

 

Defences to a Theft

If a person is charged with theft, they may raise a defence in court if they plead not guilty. One defence may be that the person honestly believed that the goods belonged to them, known as the defence of “colour of right”. If you are charged with theft, you should obtain legal advice as soon as possible to determine if you have a defence.

Failure to Return Borrowed Items

Not returning borrowed items would be considered theft. Borrowed items are items that were lent to a person with the owner’s consent. If these items were not returned to the original owner, this would be theft. For example, if a boss gives an employee balloons to hand out to customers, the employee can be charged with theft if they keep the leftover balloons. Another example of theft is where a person borrows a friend’s car and does not return it.

Theft by Conversion

If a person borrows an item and changes its condition before returning it, they can be charged with theft by conversion. This means that the items were altered or changed while a person, other than the owner of the item, had the items in their possession.

For example, if a person borrows their friend’s car (with the friend’s consent) and they return the car with damage to the car, they can be charged with theft by conversion. Similarly, if a bank makes an error and deposits $500.00 into a bank account and the owner of the account takes the money out (knowing that it is not theirs); they can be charged with theft by conversion. If the person was not aware that the bank made the error and they advise them of the error later, they can be charged with theft if they refuse to pay the $500.00 back to the bank.

Theft by Shoplifting

The most common type of theft is shoplifting. Shoplifting occurs when a person takes items out of a store without paying for them. This includes eating food from a grocery store without paying for it first.

Shoplifting includes instances where a person intends to steal items but has not removed the items from the store yet. For example, if a security guard at a store believes that a person has shoplifted and prevents them from leaving the store, that person can be charged with theft (or attempted theft), even though they have not left the store yet. A person can also be charged with theft regardless of whether they make an effort to conceal the stolen items or not.

Penalties for Theft

The penalties for a theft conviction are dependent on the value of the items that were taken, pursuant to section 334 of the Criminal Code;

  • If the items are valued at less than $5,000.00, the person can be charged with either a summary offence or an indictable offence.
    • If convicted of a summary offence, the person may receive a fine of up to $5,000.00 or 2 years in prison (or a combination of both);
    • If convicted of an indictable offence, the person may receive a maximum of 2 years in prison.
  • If the items are valued more than $5,000.00, the person may be charged with an indictable offence and could receive up to 10 years in prison, or they may be charged with a summary offence, punishable by up to 2 years in prison.

If a person is convicted of theft of items with a value of less than $5,000.00, they may be given an absolute discharge, a conditional discharge, or probation. It is up to a court to determine what type of sentence is appropriate, depending on the circumstances.

Alternative Measure Program

First-time offenders, who have stolen items with a value less than $5,000.00, may qualify for the Alternative Measures Program. In order to participate in the Program, the offender must take responsibility for the crime they are charged with and consent to participate in the program. Successful candidates will have to enter into an agreement where they will engage in community service, participate in a specific program or provide a donation to a charity. It is up to a Crown prosecutor to decide if the Program is appropriate for the offender and in some instances, second-time offenders can be considered. If an individual is accepted into the program, the Crown will withdraw the charges following successful completion of the program.

Dial-A-Law is a Calgary Legal Guidance public service project funded in part by the Alberta Law Foundation.