Shoplifting at Florida Wal-Mart Doesn’t Justify Fraud Charge, Court Says

In order to be convicted of a crime in Florida, a judge or jury has to find beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the specific offense with which you have been charged. That means the burden is on prosecutors to prove each individual element of an offense, including specific intent in many cases. Florida’s First District Court of appeal recently explained that shoplifting, for example, involves a different type of intent than fraud. The decision is important because a person can’t be convicted of a crime for which he or she hasn’t been charged, unless it’s considered a “lesser included offense.”

Legal News GavelDefendant was charged with participating in a scheme to defraud, stemming from a series of alleged Wal-Mart shoplifting incidents in Live Oak. Prosecutors alleged that on various occasions Defendant entered the store, loaded items into a shopping cart, and then ran out of the store with those items without paying. Defendant argued that he should be acquitted of the charge because prosecutors didn’t show that he acted with the intent to defraud or that he made any misrepresentations as part of the alleged thefts. Prosecutors countered that Defendant misrepresented that he was “a lawful paying customer” every time he left the store without paying for the items.

The trial judge denied Defendant’s motion for acquittal. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to three years in prison and another two years of probation. Defendant later appealed the conviction.

Reversing the conviction on appeal, the First District said the prosecutors didn’t prove every element of the scheme to defraud charge. That charge—also often referred to as “organized fraud” —requires among other elements that prosecutors establish an “intent to defraud, or intent to obtain property by false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, or willful misrepresentations of a future act,” the court explained. The prosecutors didn’t prove that intent in this case, the court said, because Defendant never claimed that the stolen property was his.

“He openly walked out the front door with the stolen goods each time,” the court explained. “And no case has been cited to us that shoplifting, even repeatedly, is a scheme to defraud.”

Instead, the court said the prosecutors should have charged Defendant with theft. Because they didn’t do so, the First District reversed the conviction and remanded the case back to the trial court for additional proceedings. It explained that petit theft and grand theft are “lesser included offenses” that don’t require a misrepresentation or intent to defraud.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Florida, it is essential that you seek the advice and counsel of an experienced defense lawyer. Clearwater criminal defense attorney Will Hanlon is a seasoned lawyer who fights aggressively on behalf of clients charged with a wide range of crimes. Call our offices at (727) 897-5413 or contact us online to speak with Mr. Hanlon about your case.

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