John P. Webb, Attorney at Law
(615) 647-5762

Tennessee court rules on charging shoplifters with burglary

Is shoplifting the same as burglary? The law says no, but a policy in Tennessee allows prosecutors to treat shoplifters as burglars. Prosecutors in Knox County have been treating individuals charged with shoplifting the same as individuals charged with burglary to crack down on shoplifting and repeat offenders.

Prosecutors may no longer be able to use the policy to “crack down” on shoplifters. The state appellate court recently ruled that the policy is unconstitutional. Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals Judge Camille R. McMullen said that shoplifting is not the same as burglary, and treating shoplifters as burglars violates the constitution. She said burglary charges are intended to punish individuals who break into homes or locked businesses – not shoplifters who steal from places that are open to the public, such as retail stores that are open 24 hours.

Shoplifting or petty theft is not the same as burglary, according to the state appellate court. McMullen said prosecutors who do charge individuals with burglary instead of shoplifting or petty theft are “abusing their charging discretion” by changing the terms of the burglary statute.

Shoplifting vs. burglary charge: Why it matters

In Tennessee, petty theft is defined as stealing items with a value less than $1,000. Shoplifters who steal items that value less than $1,000 do not face the same consequences or potential jail time as petty theft. The consequences only increase when someone is charged with burglary.

Charging someone with burglary instead of shoplifting brings harsher penalties that can include two to 12 years in prison. A burglary conviction also results in an individual losing the right to vote or own a gun.

Will people still get charged with burglary instead of shoplifting?

The state appellate court ruling has addressed the issue, but don’t expect the debate over shoplifting versus burglary to go away any time soon. The policy has created controversy among prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys. Despite the recent ruling, some prosecutors say they are not done fighting this in court. On the other side, defense attorneys continue to say they will fight to keep their clients from being over-charged.

This issue is why it is vital to work with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible if you have been charged with shoplifting, petty theft or burglary. All of these charges carry consequences, some more harsh than others.

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John P. Webb, Attorney at Law
5115 Maryland Way
Brentwood, TN 37027

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Phone: 615-647-5762