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Criminal Defence Articles

What happens for a first offence of Theft?

Theft is one of the most common criminal offences to be committed in England and Wales. In 2020/2021, there were roughly 1.9 million theft offences reported. The offence of theft is drafted widely and ranges from small scale petty crime to major organised heists. The approach that will be taken by the courts to a first-time offender varies depending on the seriousness of the offence. If it is a minor offence, you could be lucky enough to escape jail time. However, where the property stolen is of high value, or you abused a position of trust in order to appropriate it, you could be facing jail time. This article looks at the legal elements of theft, how the police will investigate an allegation of theft, and the sentence that you could receive if you are caught stealing for the first time.

What is the offence of theft?

The definition of theft is set out at Section 1 of the Theft Act 1968. This states that:

(1) A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it; and “thief” and “steal” shall be construed accordingly.

(2) It is immaterial whether the appropriation is made with a view to gain or is made for the thief’s own benefit.

Breaking this down, the prosecution will need to prove the following elements in order to secure a conviction for theft:

  • The act must be dishonest: The offence of theft is only designed to target dishonest behaviour. That said, dishonesty is not defined by the Theft Act 1968. The courts have held that dishonesty will be interpreted in line with the views of ‘ordinary, decent people.’ If you took something believing that the owner would consent, this would not constitute theft. Similarly, if you took reasonable steps to try to locate the owner but were unable to do so, this is not theft.
  • Appropriation: Put simply, this means the act of taking. However, it can also mean more widely the ‘assumption of the rights of the owner.’
  • Property: This can mean objects or cash. It can also mean intangible property, such as value in a bank account. This does not include wild flowers, mushrooms, or any other plant growing wild on someone’s land, unless it is taken for commercial use.
  • Belonging to another: This includes where the person has possession or control of it; has given it to the defendant subject to an obligation that it is dealt with in some particular way or has given it to the defendant by mistake and the defendant is under an obligation to restore it to them (in whole or in part). Even if the person from whom the property was stolen does not lawfully own it, the charge of theft will be made out.
  • With the intention to permanently deprive: There is no exhaustive definition of what this means; it depends on the facts of the case. This can include when an object is taken for the course of its useful life, e.g. if a season ticket travel card is stolen for the duration of its validity.

Examples of theft include:

  • pickpocketing
  • reaching through a window to steal from a person’s house
  • stealing from an employer
  • breaking into a car to steal from it
  • stealing metal cables from a railway

Shoplifting is also a form of theft, however special considerations apply to how it is dealt with by the courts (see below).

What is the difference between theft, burglary, and robbery?

Theft addresses offences where property is taken unlawfully, but without the use of force. By contrast, in order to lay a charge for robbery, force must be used or threatened. This includes street muggings. This is reflected in the more serious sentence available for robbery. The maximum sentence for robbery is life imprisonment whereas the maximum sentence for theft is 7 years’ imprisonment.

Meanwhile, burglary occurs where the theft arises in the context of an unlawful entry into a building. Burglary can also cover cases where a person, having entered as a trespasser, commits grievous bodily harm, or attempts to do so. Burglary covers unlawful entry into both domestic and non-domestic buildings. Aggravated burglary occurs where the burglar is carrying a weapon, firearm, or explosive.

What happens if you are suspected of theft in the UK?

The procedure that is followed if you are suspected of theft depends on where the theft is alleged to have occurred.

If it is a shoplifting offence, a security guard can conduct a citizen’s arrest if someone is caught in the act of shoplifting. This is permissible where it is reasonably necessary, e.g. because no police officer is present or nearby to make the arrest themselves, and the suspect would run off otherwise. Security guards are empowered to detain shoplifters and use reasonable force in order to do so pursuant to the Section 3(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1967. Once the security guard has detained you, the police will be called and you will be arrested. You will then be taken to the police station in order to be interviewed and charged. As an alternative to a charge, you may be offered an out of court disposal, such as a penalty fine or caution. If you choose to accept a caution, this will still form part of your criminal record.

In an employment context, it could be your employer who reports the incident to the police. In this situation, it might be that you are arrested, or you could be invited for a voluntary interview at the police station. Even if you attend the interview voluntarily, you still have the right to legal representation. It is worth instructing a good criminal defence solicitor, as your career and future livelihood are potentially on the line.

What is the sentence for theft?

The maximum sentence for theft depends on the value of the goods that have been stolen. If the goods are under the value of £200 and it is a shoplifting offence, the maximum sentence is 6 months’ custody. For goods over the value of £200 where the case is heard in the Crown Court, the maximum sentence is 7 years’ custody.

When deciding what sentence you should face for theft, the court will assess your culpability and the harm posed by your offending. Culpability will be assessed by reference to the extent to which the offence was planned and premeditated, and the sophistication of the offence.

Harm mainly relates to the size of the financial loss, but where the theft was from a person, it will also include consideration of whether the goods that were taken were of sentimental value.

The court will then proceed to consider aggravating and mitigating factors relevant to your personal circumstances. Finally, the judge will consider if your sentence should be reduced for a guilty plea.

Will I go to jail for the first time caught shoplifting?

Shoplifting is a type of theft that involves taking an item or items from a shop without paying for it/them, whilst in the shop acting as a customer or potential customer. You are unlikely to be given a custodial sentence if it is the first time that you have been caught shoplifting and the goods are worth less than £200. Low value shoplifting is dealt with under Section 176 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. This law confirms that low-value shoplifting (under the value of £200 as a total of all the items for which the defendant is being charged) is a summary only offence, which means that it must be heard in the Magistrates’ Court.

The caveat to this is that if you are aged 18 or over, you can elect for your case to be heard in the Crown Court before a jury. The maximum sentence for shoplifting is a custodial sentence of 6 months, however it could be dealt with by way of a fine or community level order.

When deciding whether to impose a custodial sentence, the court will consider whether you present a danger to the public, and if you have a history of poor compliance with court orders. You are less likely to be given a custodial sentence where there is a realistic prospect of rehabilitation and/or strong mitigating circumstances. For example, if you stole  items in the context of drug addiction, determination to address your offending would be a persuasive factor against a custodial sentence.

Where to get further help?

Although some types of theft, namely petty theft and shoplifting, may seem like minor offences, if you are convicted of theft of any type, you may end up with a conviction on your criminal record that could have a major impact on your future employment opportunities. If this is a risk for you, Stuart Miller Solicitors can help. Whether you are looking to defend your innocence or to ask the court to reduce your sentence on account of mitigating factors, our experienced criminal defence solicitors are ready to assist you today. Contact us for more information, and to arrange an initial consultation.


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