The recent arrest of Antony Worrall Thompson highlights the offence of shoplifting

11 December 2012

For a first time shoplifter who steals low value items and makes admissions at the police station, the most likely outcome is a Caution. A Caution is not a conviction but it is recorded against the person's name on the Police National Computer. Therefore, even a Caution can effect certain professions (solicitors/barristers, police officers, teachers, prison officers, care workers to name but a few) due to the requirement of Criminal Records Bureau checks, commonly referred to as a CRB check. However, a Caution is generally considered a better outcome, if the offence is not disputed, than the risk of a criminal conviction. There is another disposal available in those circumstances which is sometimes offered. This is a fixed penalty notice or FPN (also referred to sometimes as a "ticket") which is similar to a fixed penalty notice which is often issued by the Police for matters of speeding. The Police issue the individual with a FPN and, provided they pay the penalty (usually £80) within 28 days, the matter proceeds no further. If not paid, a summons to attend Court will be issued as an alternative and, following an appearance at Court, the penalty or fine is likely to be much higher as prosecution costs will be added. A FPN is also not a criminal conviction but it is recorded against the person's name on the Police National Computer in the same way as a Caution. If an individual is not eligible for a Caution, either because they have been Cautioned before or because they do not admit the offence, they could be charged and bailed or summonsed to appear at Court. If a guilty plea is entered, the most likely sentence is one of an absolute or conditional discharge. This means that there is no punishment at all for the offence as, due to circumstances of the offence or the offender, it is inexpedient to punish either at all (an absolute discharge) or if the person commits no more offences within a specified period of time (a conditional discharge – of 6 or 12 months for example). The next sentencing step for those who plead guilty at Court or are convicted after a trial of shoplifting or minor theft is a fine. This should be at a level which is appropriate to the individual's financial circumstances. It can be the appropriate sentence for someone who has already been Cautioned by Police or who has already received a conditional discharge in the past, for shoplifting or another type of offence. It can also be used where someone has previous convictions for theft or dishonesty but they have not offended for a significant period of time and therefore the Court does not think that their former level of sentencing (i.e. a community order or imprisonment) is justified on this occasion. Where an offender has several previous convictions for shoplifting, other types of theft or matters of dishonesty, a further conviction for shoplifting is likely to be dealt with by either a community order or a suspended sentence of imprisonment. A community order is the umbrella term for punishment in the community which can incorporate any number of the requirements set out below. A community order can both punish and rehabilitate the individual. Where an offence of shoplifting is so serious that the custody threshold is met, either because the offender is considered to be a prolific shoplifter, there are aggravating features such as high value items stolen, the person is operating as part of a group, a large number of offences are being dealt with by the Court or the person is subject to a community order or suspended sentence at the time of the offence, the Court will consider imposing a sentence of imprisonment. A sentence of imprisonment can either be immediate, i.e. the individual goes into prison or a young offenders institution at the time of sentence or it can be suspended for a period of time determined by the Court. Where a suspended sentence is passed, the Court will specify the length of the custodial sentence and also the period for which it is suspended. For example, 6 weeks imprisonment suspended for 12 months. Requirements appropriate to the individual will be attached to the suspended sentence order (see below for possible requirements). Provided the offender does not commit any further offences during the operational period of the suspended sentence (in the example, for the next 12 months) and completes the specific requirements imposed by the Court (examples set out below for both community orders and suspended sentence of imprisonment), the person will not be sent to prison but will complete their punishment in the community. However, if any further offence is committed (even an offence which is, of itself, not imprisonable) or there is a failure to comply with any of the specified requirements, commonly referred to as a breach of the order, the Court can activate the whole or any part of the prison sentence which was suspended. It is worth remembering that the Court's starting point in the event of a breach of the suspended sentence order (either by committing a new offence or failing to comply with any of the requirements) is that it must activate the sentence of imprisonment unless it considers it would be unjust to do so. It therefore follows that there must be a very good reason for a breach to avoid the sentence of imprisonment being activated. Requirements to Community Order or Suspended Sentence Order • Unpaid work; • Curfew, usually during evening and night, electronically monitored; • Supervision by Probation; • Specified Activity; for example participation in the Thinking Skills, Integrated Domestic Violence or Offender Substance Abuse programme; • Treatment; Drug Rehabilitation, Alcohol Treatment Programme, Mental Health requirement; • Education, Training and Employment; • Attendance Centre; • Prohibited Activity Requirement; prohibition from entering a certain store where shoplifting has taken place or prohibition from entering licensed premises. For more information please complete our Enquiry Form call us on 01245 493939 or email The above is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.