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Arizona Court Discusses Probable Cause as It Pertains to Shoplifting in Recent Appellate Decision

Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in an Arizona gun possession case where the defendant was arrested for shoplifting and, upon a search of his backpack, police discovered a firearm. The case presents an interesting and informative discussion regarding when police have probable cause to determine that someone has committed the crime of shoplifting.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant entered a store wearing a backpack. He placed the backpack into a shopping cart and began walking around the store. The store’s video surveillance system shows the defendant selecting a variety of items and putting them into his cart. He also places a number of those items back onto the shelf. At some point, the defendant took a pair of sunglasses off the rack, removed the tag, and placed them atop his head.

The video also showed the defendant select an energy drink and a package of condoms and place them atop his backpack, which was still lying inside the cart. At some point, the defendant walks behind some displays out of frame of the surveillance camera. When he gets back in the frame, the energy drink and box of condoms are no longer visible. The store security guard, who believed that the defendant placed the items in his backpack, called the police. The defendant was stopped at the point-of-sale, before he had paid for the items or left the store. Police arrested the defendant for shoplifting and searched his backpack, where they found an energy drink, a box of condoms, narcotics, and a gun.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the contents of his backpack, arguing that the police did not have probable cause to arrest him for shoplifting and thus lacked justification to search his backpack. The trial court agreed with the defendant, noting that the video did not show the defendant putting anything into his backpack. The court also noted that the defendant had not yet left the cash registers, and still had an opportunity to pay for the sunglasses. The prosecution appealed.

On appeal, the case was reversed. The appellate court determined that the police officers had probable cause to arrest the defendant and search his backpack based on the video surveillance footage. The court explained that probable cause is “information sufficient to justify belief by a reasonable man that an offense is being or has been committed” and does not require a police officer be absolutely certain that an offense had been committed.

Here, the court acknowledged that the video did not show the defendant secrete anything in his backpack. However, the court explained that the fact that the defendant removed the tags from the sunglasses “strongly suggests that he intended to shoplift, markedly increasing the probability that the disappearance of the box was not innocent.”

The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that he still had an opportunity to pay for the items because he was still at the cash register. The court reasoned that the act of shoplifting is complete when an item is concealed, rather than when it leaves the premises.

Have You Been Charged with an Arizona Theft Crime?

If you have recently been charged with an Arizona theft crime, contact the Law Office of James E. Novak. Attorney Novak is a dedicated Arizona criminal defense attorney with extensive experience defending the rights of the accused across Arizona. Attorney Novak represents clients in all types of theft cases, including Arizona shoplifting cases. To learn more, call 480-413-1499 to schedule a free consultation with Attorney Novak today.

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