Petty Theft in Rhode Island Penalties and Defense

If someone takes something that does not belong to them, it is a crime. The degree of theft depends on the value of stolen property, where it was stolen from, how many times the offender committed the crime, the type of property taken, and the age of the offender. Theft statutes vary from state to state. Rhode Island provides stringent penalties for the crime of petty theft.

The legal definition theft (also called shoplifting, larceny, or pilfering) is to permanently deprive someone else of their property. The statute covering petty theft is R.I.G.L. § 11-41-20. R.I.G.L. stands for Rhode Island General Laws. The dollar value Rhode Island assigns for the crime of petty theft for retail merchandise is $100 or less. Yet the laws don’t just apply to the person committing the theft. If anyone receives stolen goods, under R.I.G.L. § 11-41-2, whether or not the original thief was convicted, the person receiving stolen goods also faces penalties. The exception to this statute is if the person receiving the stolen property proves they paid “adequate consideration” for the goods, not knowing the goods were stolen; however, the burden of proof for innocence is on the receiver of the goods. The justice system assumes the receiver knows the property was stolen.

Petty theft, stealing anything valued at a retail establishment under the price of $100 does not just include walking out of the store with the merchandise. The crime, a misdemeanor, includes: price switching; leaving the store premises with the merchandiser’s shopping cart; eating a meal at a restaurant and leaving without paying for it; concealing merchandise while in the store; wearing clothes while concealing their tags in order to exit the store with the unpaid for merchandise, plus other ways thieves think up to steal merchandise or goods. If the petty larceny is against a person, it may include stealing bicycles, small amounts of cash, inexpensive jewelry, and other low-priced articles. Shoplifting laws are not simple or straightforward, since they include multiple provisions to determine the circumstances of theft.

After someone has stolen something, what are the penalties for that crime? First offenders can be liable for fines of $50-$500 or two times the retail value of stolen items. Offenders may also face one year in jail. For first time offenders of non-violent crime, a diversion program may be offered to avoid jail time and having a crime on their record. Programs are offered at the Attorney General’s discretion. There is no constitutional basis for this program. In addition, the offender must claim responsibility for the offense, plus pay all court costs, attorney fees and diversion program costs. First offender crimes are taken off their records, so that they won’t significantly impact future employment, housing or other situations. The program is a pre-trial diversion, although a judge may recommend it, an attorney is still necessary to help a first-time offender get into one. Below is the link for an adult diversion application:

The charge becomes a felony for second or subsequent lawbreakers or if the value of the merchandise stolen is over $100. For the accused in these crimes, there is no diversion program. The penalties are a fine up to $5000 and five years in jail.

Enhanced penalties are also provided for lawbreakers 65 years or older if the merchandise stolen is under $500. Penalties include a fine of $3000 and between one to five years in jail. If the items stolen costs over $500, the financial penalty is up to $5000 and jail time of two to fifteen years.

Repeat offenders face a fine of between $200-$500 and jail time of a mandatory six months to one year.

Defenses against petty theft vary from store to store, but include: store security videos, store security personnel, or even the statement accused. In court, Rhode Island does not allow defenses of drug usage or mental illness. The burden of proof is on the offender, since the accusing party does not have to prove intent. With retail stores and other establishments, such as restaurants, having to provide additional measures for theft prevention, it is no wonder the laws of this state are so severe. Still, thieves do what they can to get around security systems and walk off with merchandise or food, or groceries.

After reading all of the above, is it still worth it to possess something costing less than $100 on a five-finger discount? For something is relatively inexpensive, the penalties can possibly ruin someone’s future chances of gaining employment or housing. Everyone makes mistakes, but some of them are more costly than others. Rhode Island laws are very specific about the crime of petty theft, plus what happens to someone accused of breaking those laws. Isn’t it better to wait until the item can be paid for without breaking the law?