What can a store do if they suspect me of shoplifting?

Shoplifting is a form of theft which involves taking something from a shop without paying for it, or changing the price of goods in order to pay a lower price on them.

If a shop staff member suspects that you may have shoplifted, they aren’t entitled to search your or your bags without your permission (even if they have a sign saying that they can).

The store can ask you to stay, but are only allowed to actively prevent you from leaving the store (using reasonable force - this is called a citizen’s arrest) in limited circumstances:

  • the goods that they think you have shoplifted are worth at least $1000
  • it is between the hours of 9pm and 6am

The store can call the Police, who can arrest you and search your bags. The store can also issue you with a trespass notice.

If a shop staff member finds goods which you have taken without properly paying for them, they have the right to recover those goods.

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What will the Police do if I’ve been caught shoplifting?

What the Police will do will depend on your age and your criminal history:

If you are aged less than 17 years

You can’t be charged with theft if you are less than 14 years old (instead you’ll be dealt with under child care and protection laws); if you’re aged 14-16 years, you can be charged with theft. However most likely the Police may give you a warning or arrange for a programme of intervention instead.

If you are given a Police warning, the Police Youth Aid Section will contact your parents about it, and also keep a record of the warning on their records. If you are given a formal police caution, it is done at the Police station and in the presence of a parent, caregiver or another adult of your choice.

If the Police intend to charge you, you will have to attend a family group conference (organised by Child, Young Persons and their Families). You may also be required to go to Youth Court.

If you’re 17 years or older

The Police can arrest you for theft if you are aged 17 years or older.

They might follow this up by giving you a Pre-Charge Warning (PDF). This is a formal warning given after arrest for a relatively minor offence and allows you to avoid going to court and receiving a criminal conviction.

Otherwise the Police can charge you with theft. If you are charged, you may get diversion (more information about the Police Adult Diversion Scheme is on our Diversion page), or have to go to the District Court (see the next question).

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What sentence could I expect if I’m found guilty of theft? 

If you are under 17 years of age the Youth Court judge may sentence you to supervision, community work, a stint in a Child, Youth and Family Services residence, or order you to pay a fine.

If you are an adult (aged 17 years or older), the maximum sentences for theft are:

  • up to three months in prison if what you’ve stolen is worth no more than $500 
  • up to one year in prison if what you’ve stolen is worth between $500 and $1000
  • up to seven years in prison if what you’ve stolen is worth more than $1000

However, the District Court judge may instead sentence you to community work and/or some other form of community sentencing.

You will have to pay court costs.

The judge will base their decision on factors such as the effect of the offence on the victim; your personal, family, community and cultural background; whether you’ve had any previous convictions, whether you pleaded guilty and so on.

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I was caught shoplifting something worth $20 and the shop has sent me a bill for $400! Do I have to pay it?

Some retailers will issue you with a civil recovery fee if you have been caught shoplifting from them. It's a demand for money to recover any costs which the retailer has incurred as a result of your theft. This can’t just be a blanket fee for shoplifting, but must relate to specific costs relating to your actions.

You can refuse to pay the fee – if you refuse, the shop can only enforce it by making a claim in the Disputes Tribunal or District Court.

Be aware that even if you pay this fee, you could still end up going to Court and you may still be ordered to pay a fine. Paying a civil recovery fee isn’t a substitute for the justice process.

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My son was given a trespass notice from the mall after he was caught stealing. Is this legal?

Because the shop is private property, the owner or manager has the right to prevent anyone from entering their shop as long as doing so is not in breach of the Human Rights Act (e.g. they can’t exclude someone on the basis of their race or religious beliefs).

Whether your child was caught shoplifting, suspected of shoplifting, associating with someone who was shoplifting or associating with a suspected shoplifter, the mall owner or management has the right to issue them with a trespass notice to prevent them from returning to the mall for two years. You can read more about this on our Trespass page.

If you feel that your child has been discriminated against, you have the option of taking your complaint to the Human Rights Commission

For more information, you can contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau.   

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I was caught shoplifting but the Police let me off with a warning. Will this show up in future when I apply for jobs?

It may show up, depending on the nature of the warning and what sort of vetting your employer does.

A criminal record check will only show up criminal and traffic convictions, so won’t show up a police warning. Even if you have a criminal conviction it may not show up depending on your circumstances. You can find out more about this on the Ministry of Justice website.

However when you apply for a job (or to volunteer) involving vulnerable members of the community you may be subject to Police vetting, which is a different process.

Under Police vetting they may release information about not only convictions but also about information about diversion or any interaction with Police which they consider relevant, this can include warnings from Police.

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What measures can I take to discourage shoplifters from my shop?

There is a wide range of measures you can take to prevent shoplifting, from installing security cameras or hiring security staff, to paying for the use of specialist information-sharing software that identifies known shoplifters.

But you can start by reading these crime prevention resources from the New Zealand Police and Booksellers New Zealand.

If your shop trades online, you’ll also need to consider protections against theft by cybercrime.