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Shoplifting and Technology

Shoplifting and TechnologyThere are plenty of legends surrounding wealthy people. For example, people assume you’re happy if you have lots of money, and several studies support this. Also, people assume you’re smart if you have lots of money. There are plenty of studies to show this is not the case. If intelligence did lead to wealth, I’m sure India would have less poverty (India contains Earth’s lion share of geniuses, FYI), and Christopher Langan would have Trump style buildings with his name on them (Christopher is the smartest human being on Earth–if you subscribe to IQ testing–but his employment isn’t CEO of the latest craze in Silicon Valley, Christopher keeps it low key with such titles as bouncer and laborer. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”, as Seinfeld taught me, but these aren’t the jobs you’d expect of someone with an IQ higher than Hawking or Einstein or Ben Stein).

So, I really like Apple products, and I heard a legend about Steve Jobs that seems plausible. He didn’t like carrying around music on cassette tapes, or CD’s. Jobs wanted a more portable music device that could hold more songs than a cassette or CD, but the engineers at Apple kept putting him off because they didn’t have the storage technology to make it happen. Yes, the engineers are always at odds with the artists. Later in the legend, Toshiba came out with a tiny hard drive with a decent storage capacity. With the birth of that tiny hard drive, Steve Jobs’ dream of an iPod became a reality. The iPod music revolution began with hard drive technology. Then the iPhone, and so forth, and so on.

Hard drive technology is now affecting shoplifting cases. Here’s how. A shoplifter gets caught stealing (we call this petit theft). Back in the day, security cameras were considered new technology, but they were only being viewed live, or the footage was being recorded on a VCR that taped over itself every couple of hours. The cameras enabled loss prevention officers to view shoppers as possible suspects. For example, nothing screams “I’m stealing” like someone putting clothes into a bag without ever looking at the size or price. Once loss prevention spots such odd behavior, they can close in on the suspect. Now, with the advent of hard drive technology, some stores are able to digitally record many months of video, and when they catch someone stealing, loss prevention simply burns two copies of the footage–one for the police, and one for the local news channel (does the public ever tire of seeing someone caught in the act?). After that, they start reviewing past footage.

The impact of technology isn’t felt on the initial petit theft arrest. Hard drive technology is impacting shoplifters because it’s enabling loss prevention to review old video from months past. When they rewind the tape and spot their current shoplifter in the store two months ago, guess what? As shocking as this may sound to your virgin ears–for some of these shoplifters–this is not their first rodeo. After the tape is rewound, we’re seeing a second theft charge. And a third theft charge. This wasn’t possible five years ago, as storing thousands of hours of camera footage on hard drives simply cost too much money. The evidence was erased to make room for more recent recordings. Today’s massive hard drives can store months and months of store shenanigans, and this added capacity is translating into additional charges for repeat offenders.

There are time limits on this madness. Florida’s statute of limitations gives retailers only a couple of years to get their act together. My experience has been that the stores are able to uncover video evidence of prior thefts within six months of an initial arrest. Such delays can be bad for some folks, as I’ve seen defendants already complete their initial sentence, only to get rearrested for a theft that occurred before the one they just finished (follow that?). Sorting through months of hard drive video still takes quite a bit of labor, but facial recognition software is speeding up these searches. Recently, Walmart discontinued their use of facial recognition software, citing the fact that they were not seeing the return on investment they had hoped for (in other words, this technology is expensive). Walmart seems to be the only retailer who has ever admitted to using facial recognition, but I suspect others are out there doing it as well. The use of this software is legal in 48 states, with Illinois and Texas being the only two to ban such technology.

Bottom line here is that we defense attorneys are seeing more and more repeat offenses once loss prevention examines their old footage. There are several legal challenges to such tactics, which we don’t have time for today (it would bore you, and I’ve got football to watch). Should you have any questions, shoot me an email at

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