How To Beat a Self-Checkout Theft Charge In Tennessee

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

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Woman using self checkout

Self-checkout theft charges are becoming increasingly common as more stores adopt this technology. These charges can arise from simple mistakes or misunderstandings, yet they carry serious legal consequences in Tennessee. Even minor oversights at the self-checkout can lead to allegations of theft, resulting in fines, criminal records, and even jail time.


Addressing a self-checkout theft charge quickly is crucial. Knowing your rights and the available defenses can make all the difference in protecting your record and your future. In this guide, we’ll explore what constitutes self-checkout theft, your legal rights, and the steps you can take to defend yourself against these charges.

Self-Checkout Theft and Shoplifting Laws in Tennessee

Self-checkout theft involves taking items from a store without paying for them or intentionally underpaying. In Tennessee, this offense is typically prosecuted under the state’s shoplifting laws. Understanding these laws can help you know what to expect if you’re facing such a charge.

Definition of Shoplifting in Tennessee

Under Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-14-146, shoplifting is defined as knowingly taking merchandise from a retail establishment with the intent to deprive the owner of the item’s value. This can include:

  • Failing to scan items at a self-checkout kiosk.
  • Scanning a lower-priced item instead of the actual item.
  • Concealing items and leaving the store without paying.
  • Altering price tags to pay less for an item.

Penalties and Classifications

The penalties for shoplifting in Tennessee vary based on the value of the stolen merchandise:

Class A Misdemeanor:

  • For stolen items valued at $1,000 or less.
  • Punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500.

Class E Felony:

  • For stolen items valued between $1,001 and $2,500.
  • Punishable by 1 to 6 years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.

Class D Felony:

  • For stolen items valued between $2,501 and $10,000.
  • Punishable by 2 to 12 years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

Class C Felony:

  • For stolen items valued between $10,001 and $60,000.
  • Punishable by 3 to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Class B Felony:

  • For stolen items valued over $60,000.
  • Punishable by 8 to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.

Enhancements and Additional Consequences

In addition to the primary penalties for shoplifting in Tennessee, several factors can lead to enhanced penalties and additional consequences:

Repeat Offenders

For individuals with prior shoplifting convictions, the consequences can be significantly more severe. This means that a second or subsequent shoplifting offense could lead to increased fines, longer jail sentences, and more stringent probation terms. Furthermore, multiple shoplifting incidents can escalate misdemeanor charges to felonies, which carry much heavier penalties.

A simple shoplifting charge can even become a felony if you have been banned from the store and commit a theft at a store you have been banned from entering. In fact, the State can simply allege you had an intent to steal to enhance the charge to burglary or attempted burglary.

This trespassing with the intent to steal argument was made in a famous Knoxville Walmart case that was decided by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 2019 in State v. Welch. 

Civil Penalties

Beyond criminal charges, those caught shoplifting in Tennessee may also face civil penalties. Retailers have the legal right to seek civil damages from shoplifters, which can include the value of the stolen merchandise, legal fees, and additional fines up to $1,000. In many cases, courts will order restitution, requiring the convicted individual to compensate the victim for the cost of the stolen items and any related expenses incurred by the store.

Permanent Criminal Record

A shoplifting conviction results in a permanent criminal record, which can have far-reaching consequences. Even if the charge is a misdemeanor, it remains on your record and can affect various aspects of your life. Employment opportunities may be limited as many employers conduct background checks and view a theft conviction unfavorably. Similarly, landlords and licensing boards often perform background checks, and a shoplifting conviction could hinder your chances of securing housing or professional licenses.

Common Defenses Against Self-Checkout Theft Charges

There are several potential defenses that can be used to challenge shoplifting allegations:

Lack of Intent

One key element in a shoplifting case is intent. Prosecutors must prove that you intended to steal the items in question. Without intent, there is no theft. Common scenarios where intent can be challenged include:

  • Accidental Non-Scanning: Sometimes, items are accidentally not scanned due to technical glitches or simple human error. In these cases, it can be argued that there was no intent to steal.
  • Distraction: Distractions such as phone calls, children, or other interruptions can lead to unintentional oversight. Demonstrating that you were distracted and did not knowingly fail to scan items can be a strong defense.

Mistaken Identity

Self-checkout areas can be busy and chaotic, which can lead to mistaken identity. Defenses based on mistaken identity include:

  • Surveillance Footage: Reviewing store surveillance footage can show that you were not the person responsible. Clear video evidence can exonerate you if it proves your innocence.
  • Witness Testimonies: Gathering statements from witnesses who can confirm your version of events can support your defense.

Honest Mistake

Sometimes, honest mistakes can be mistaken for theft. Defenses based on honest mistakes include:

  • Item Confusion: If you confused items, such as thinking you scanned an item when you didn’t, this can be presented as a defense.
  • Bagging Mistakes: Accidental bagging of an item without scanning it can be argued as an honest mistake, especially if you paid for the rest of your items correctly.


Miscommunication or misunderstanding between you and store employees or security personnel can lead to wrongful accusations. Defenses based on miscommunication include:

  • Misunderstanding Store Policies: If you misunderstood store policies regarding the self-checkout process, this can be presented as a defense.
  • Language Barriers: Language barriers can lead to misunderstandings and should be considered in your defense if applicable.

Each case is unique, and the best defense will depend on the specific circumstances of your situation. Consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney is crucial to building a solid defense and achieving the best possible outcome in your case.

Steps to Take If You’re Charged with Self-Checkout Theft

If you find yourself facing a self-checkout theft charge in Tennessee, taking immediate and appropriate steps is essential. Here’s what you should do to protect your rights and build a strong defense:

Stay Calm and Silent

If you are in the midst of a shoplifting accusation at the store, remain composed and avoid making any sudden or aggressive movements. Exercise your right to remain silent and do not provide any statements to store employees, security personnel, or law enforcement without an attorney present. Remember: anything you say can and will be used against you.

Gather Evidence

Collect and keep all receipts and any records of transactions from the store visit. Obtain contact information from any known witnesses who were present and can corroborate your story. Additionally, write down everything you remember about the incident, including any issues with the self-checkout machine.

Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

Reach out to an experienced criminal defense attorney in Tennessee with a proven track record in shoplifting cases as soon as possible. Early involvement of an attorney can help preserve evidence, protect your rights, and provide assurance for a positive outcome. Schedule a consultation to discuss the details of your case and develop a defense strategy.

Legal Strategies for Defending Against Shoplifting Charges

When charged with shoplifting in Tennessee, having a solid legal strategy is essential to achieving a favorable outcome. Here are some of the ways a criminal defense lawyer can help fight shoplifting charges:

Negotiating with Prosecutors

Your attorney may negotiate with the prosecutor to reduce charges or explore alternative sentencing options, such as community service or theft prevention classes. For first-time offenders, pretrial diversion programs can be an excellent alternative, leading to dismissal of charges upon successful completion.

Challenging the Evidence

The prosecution must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Your attorney can file motions to suppress improperly obtained evidence and challenge the reliability and validity of the evidence presented. This includes questioning the clarity of surveillance footage, the chain of custody, and the credibility of witnesses.

Preparing for Court

Keep track of all court dates and ensure you attend every required appearance. Your attorney will help you prepare by organizing your evidence and guiding you on how to present yourself in court. The goal is to create reasonable doubt about your guilt.

Each case is unique, and the best legal strategy will depend on the specifics of your situation. Consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney is crucial to developing and executing a defense strategy tailored to your circumstances. An attorney can navigate the complexities of the legal system, protect your rights, and work toward the best possible outcome for your case.

Get A Criminal Defense Lawyer In Tennessee

Facing a self-checkout theft charge in Tennessee can be a challenging experience, but knowing your rights and taking immediate action can make a significant difference. At Barnes & Fersten, our criminal defense lawyers have a proven track record of success. Our legal team will examine the facts of your case and help you achieve the best possible outcome.

If you or a loved one is facing a self-checkout theft charge, don’t wait. Contact us today to schedule a consultation. Let our expertise guide you through this difficult time and provide the comprehensive defense you deserve.

Attorney At Law, Managing Partner

Brandon D. Fersten is an esteemed Knoxville attorney practicing DUIcriminal defense, and juvenile law. Known for his empathetic approach and commitment to his clients, he brings a record of favorable case outcomes including dismissals and not guilty verdicts at jury trials resulting in Brandon being recognized as one of the “Top 40 Under 40” in Criminal Defense, U.S. News’ Best Lawyers: “Ones to Watch,” and Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars”. Brandon’s professional accolades, combined with his passion for justice, position him as a reliable criminal defense advocate in the East Tennessee legal landscape.