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Grocery stores, and most retailers for that matter, suffer from large financial losses due to shoplifting. That's why you can face serious criminal penalties if caught stealing food from a grocery store.
From time to time, news stories pop up about law enforcement officers taking pity on a shoplifting suspect trying to steal a carton of eggs to feed their children, and the cop or community then buys them groceries. However, more often, officers will arrest both parents for theft and send a child to CPS over an accidentally-forgotten about $5 sandwich that was eaten while shopping in a multinational grocery chain.
The Pettiest of All Theft
If a person is not only arrested but also prosecuted and convicted, the penalty should not be that bad. That's because more likely than not, the crime charged in most jurisdictions, petty theft, will be a misdemeanor, if even. Petty theft refers to thefts of items of low value, usually not more than a few hundred or a thousand dollars. If you've only been arrested for stealing some low value foodstuffs, even if convicted, you may only get a slap on the wrist (unless you have a prior criminal record), as sentencing usually corresponds to the value of the stolen item(s).
Many states, including California, have laws that allow petty theft charges to be reduced to an infraction if the value of the stolen item is less than $50. Some jurisdictions just reduce the sentence to be only a nominal fine with no jail time, but still class the conviction as a misdemeanor.
So unless your grocer catches you shoplifting a tin of caviar and some champagne, or some really nice steaks, or maybe just a nice bottle of liquor or wine, you're not likely to see the inside of a jail cell if convicted. You may want to ask a store employee before you eat for food you haven't purchased yet, just to be safe, as stores have varying policies on this. However, any criminal conviction could have detrimental effects for you personally, professionally, and even legally. Seeking out a qualified criminal defense attorney whenever you are charged with any crime is always a good idea.
If you are thinking about going to steal some food at your local supermarket, consider looking into finding a local food bank. There are several nonprofit organizations that can provide immediate emergency assistance. Additionally, most foodstamp programs can provide immediate temporary help.