I’ve been charged with Theft in New Jersey Municipal Court. Now what?
Most theft and shoplifting charges heard in municipal court are so-called “disorderly persons” offenses which involve the theft of property worth less than $200 in total value. By contrast, the theft of items worth more than $200 is an indictable offense meaning those charges are heard at the New Jersey Superior Court-level.
Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that the relatively small property value at stake before a municipal court judge translates to equally modest penalties. Nothing could be further from the truth! Violators face potentially life-changing penalties upon conviction.
Here are three common theft charges heard in municipal court:
a. Theft of movable property – N.J.S.A. 2C:20-3(a)
b. Receiving stolen property – N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7
c. Theft by deception – N.J.S.A. 2C:20-4
d. Shoplifting – N.J.S.A. 2C:20-11
Theft of movable property is the classic theft-related charge, one that’s assessed when someone takes movable property that isn’t theirs with the purpose of depriving the victim of it (e.g. stealing a smart phone from another patron at a restaurant). Theft by deception involves using fraud to unlawfully obtain property (e.g. pretending to represent a charity to obtain donations). Receipt of stolen property pertains to receiving goods that the charged individual knows were stolen even if the accused did not personally steal the items.
Far and away the most common municipal court theft charge is Shoplifting. New Jersey towns with ‘big box’ stores and a substantial amount of commercial properties naturally experience the highest number of these violations. Shoplifting is graded as either a second degree ($75,000+), third degree ($500-$74,999), fourth degree (between $200 and $500), or disorderly persons offense (less than $200). It is not unusual for county prosecutors to downgrade fourth or even third degree shoplifting charges to a disorderly offense which, consequently, will then be adjudicated by a municipal court as opposed to the Superior Court.
For shoplifting cases, the victim corporation typically send a loss prevention representative and/or the store employee who witnessed the alleged crime. The prosecutor may heavily rely on the store’s position when it comes to a plea agreement for a less charger or reduced penalties.
What are the potential penalties? Community service is mandatory even for first-time theft offenses and jail time is a real possibility, too. Typically, first time offenders are looking at at least ten (10) days of community service. Second time offenders face at least fifteen (15) days and third time offenders need to prepare themselves for twenty-five (25) days of community service and ninety (90) days imprisonment. The maximum jail sentence is six (6) months in a county jail. Moreover, a municipal court judge may, at his or her discretion, impose a $1,000 fine, court costs, and even restitution for the stolen items.
The worst and most lasting consequence is a criminal record which can impact future employment prospects.
You do have options. An experienced New Jersey municipal court attorney may be able to negotiate the dismissal of the theft charge if you plead to a lesser borough ordinance violation for which the only penalty is usually a fine. If that isn’t an option because you were charged only with theft, or if the prosecutor is unwilling to accept the downgrade proposal, you may be eligible for a conditional dismissal. Sometimes, the state’s failure to produce discovery – or defects with that discovery or the testimony of a witness or even the availability of that witness – could prove decisive in your favor.
The bottom line? Don’t just plead guilty with so much on the line!
Theft charges carry serious consequences that can impact your ability to live and work as you had before. We’re here to help. Contact DeMichele and DeMichele at (856) 546-1350 to schedule a free and confidential consultation. Our attorneys are ready to prepare a vigorous defense for you.