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If you steal stuff that’s reduced in price – should you get a reduced sentence once you’re convicted?

Bargain hunters know how to take advantage of discounts. But an Oregon woman who gave herself a five-finger discount tried to get a discount on her punishment, by making the unusual argument that her penalty should have been based on the promoted prices of her purloined products.

An appeals court, however, isn’t buying it.

Dionne Dillard was arrested in 2018, accused of “taking a large amount of property from a Fred Meyer store without paying for it.” The store determined that the total value of the items stolen was $1,002.96, so a jury convicted her of first-degree theft, for which she was sentenced accordingly.

But the precise dollar value of the stolen items is important – because the penalty for stealing items worth $1,000 or more is far more severe than stealing items worth less than $1,000. It’s the difference between a felony charge that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $125,000 fine, or a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $6,250 fine.

So in Dillard’s case, $2.97 made all the difference. If she could show that the items she stole were overpriced by about three bucks, she could earn a major reduction in her sentence. So she appealed her conviction, arguing that she stole some things that were on sale, that were no longer on sale at the time Fred Meyer calculated its losses.

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A Fred Meyer asset protection specialist testified about the process of determining the value of the stolen items, saying it involved simply scanning each item to tally up the total price. But some time had elapsed between the theft, and the recovery of the items. So “if the price for an item was discounted” at the time of the theft, the specialist testified, “the discounted price would not necessarily pop up” at the time that he scanned it.

Citing state law that the value of stolen items is defined as “the market value of the property at the time and place of the crime,” Dillard argued that Fred Meyer, and prosecutors, “had to prove what each item was actually priced on the date of defendant’s crime, something that required proof that each item was priced at the standard price on the date of the theft and not discounted.”

The appeals court disagreed, citing case precedent that prosecutors merely had to show “the price at which the property could have been sold at the time and place it was stolen.” So the “market value” of a product is whatever price a store chooses to charge. “Even accepting the possibility of a temporary discount, it would not be unreasonable for a factfinder to infer that an item could have been sold, and probably would have been sold, at its regular price,” the court explained.

Ultimately, the court said, it was up to the jury to decide. Jurors were free to consider the fact that “the items stolen may or may not have been available at discount,” but concluded that the “regular prices represent what the items could have been sold for.” It was a judgment call – and whichever call they made, the appeals panel ruled, would have been perfectly proper under the law.

Three years after Dillard’s arrest, then, the appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling, and Dillard’s conviction and sentence stands.

So the next time you’re considering going on a stealing spree, be sure to carefully calculate the prices that you have no intention of paying. If there’s a chance you might get caught, you don’t want to be caught with a cartload of stuff that’s regularly-priced at more than $1,000. So check the shelf tags, not the sales circulars. Or, better yet, save money the legitimate way by buying your items when they’re on sale – instead of stealing them at full price.

Image source: Fred Meyer

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