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Theft and Shoplifting in Washington, D.C.

Theft in Washington, D.C. is the unauthorized taking of property from another with the intent to permanently deprive that person of it.  Put more simply, theft is stealing. The theft can be of property, both tangible and intangible.  It can also be of services.

Below is everything you need to know if you have been arrested or charged with theft I, theft II or shoplifting in Washington, D.C.  This page includes answers to the following questions:

What is theft in Washington, D.C.?
What is the difference between theft and shoplifting?
What is the difference between theft I and theft II?
What are the maximum penalties for theft I, theft II, and shoplifting?
Does D.C. offer diversion programs for first-time offenders?
Can I expunge or seal a criminal record for theft in D.C.?
Will I need a lawyer?
Will I go to jail if I am convicted of theft in D.C.?

D.C. theft attorney Jamison Koehler has extensive experience in securing the best possible outcomes for people in this type of case.  He can be reached at 202-549-2374 or

What is theft in Washington, D.C.?  

The prosecution must prove three elements — each beyond a reasonable doubt — in order to secure a conviction for theft in Washington, D.C.  First, the government must prove that the property in question belongs to another person:  You cannot be convicted of stealing your own property.  

Second, the prosecution must prove that the defendant has “wrongfully obtained or used” the property.  This can be through the actual physical taking of the property.  It can also be either through deception or through the more passive “controlling,” “unauthorized use” or “transfer” of the property.  

Finally, the government must prove that the defendant was acting with criminal intent at the time he/she obtained or used the property.  A person cannot be convicted, for example, either for mistakenly taking property or for intentionally taking property under a mistaken understanding of permission or ownership.  

In addition to tangible or intangible property, the theft of services is also covered under the general definition of theft.  Jumping the turnstile at the metro station or refusing to pay a cab/Uber/Lyft fare would all be examples of this type of theft. D.C. Criminal Code 22-3211.

What is the difference between theft and shoplifting in D.C.?

Shoplifting is the taking of merchandise from a business or store without paying for it.  As such, it is a more specific form of theft.  In D.C., the prosecution does not need to prove that the person actually left the store without paying for the item.  Simply proving that the person concealed the item with the intent to steal it is sufficient for a conviction.  Shoplifting in the District is usually charged as Theft II.  

What is the difference between theft I and theft II?

Whether you are charged with Theft in the First Degree (theft I) or Theft in the Second Degree (theft II) ) depends on the value of the property allegedly stolen.  If the value of the property is $1,000 or more, the case will be charged as theft I.  It is theft II when the amount is below $1,000.

What are the maximum penalties for theft I, theft II and shoplifting?

Theft I is a felony offense punishable by up to 10 years in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.   Theft II is a misdemeanor offense with a maximum fine of $1,000 and imprisonment for no more than 180 days.  D.C. Criminal Code § 22-3212.  The maximum penalty for shoplifting is 90 days in jail and/or a $500 fine.  D.C. Criminal Code § 22-3213.

The penalty for a Theft II conviction can be increased to 15 years and a fine of up to $50,000 if the government can prove — through a sentencing enhancement — that the person has two or more prior convictions for theft as long as the convictions were the result of theft on two separate occasions.  In this case, the court must also impose a mandatory minimum sentence of not less than one year.  D.C. Criminal Code § 22-3212(c).

[Note:  The Office of the U.S. Attorney in D.C. has recently been seeking this here-to-fore largely unused sentencing enhancement.  If granted, the enhancement results in at least a year of incarceration, even for a minor theft offense.  However, the sentence can be reduced if court sentences to the defendant to a year-and-a-day instead a year.  The extra day enables the defendant to become eligible for a “good time credit” sentencing adjustment.] 

Does D.C. offer diversion programs for first-time offenders?

If this is your first arrest, the government will probably offer you some type of diversion program for first-time offenders.  With more information on such programs to be found here, the typical diversion program for Theft II is a deferred prosecution agreement in which the offender performs 32 hours of community service over a four-month period in exchange for the government’s agreement to dismiss the charges.  The offender will also be asked to make restitution for unreturned or damaged property.  

Can I expunge or seal a criminal record for theft in D.C.?

Your first concern upon being arrested for theft in D.C. should be to have the charges against you dismissed.  Only when the case has been disposed of can you take action to either seal or expunge the resulting criminal record.  

There are two ways to seal an arrest record for Theft I or Theft II.  The first way is to file a motion to seal on the grounds of actual innocence.  You can file this motion immediately.  The second way is to wait for a period of time (typically 2 to 4 years) and file a motion alleging that it would be in the interests of justice to remove this stain from your record.  Further information on sealing or expunging your record can be found here.  

Will I need a lawyer if I am charged with theft in D.C.?

Although you have an absolute right to represent yourself in a criminal proceeding, D.C. Superior Court judges will actively discourage you from doing so.  This is because of both the complexity and legal consequences of a criminal case.  If you cannot afford a lawyer, the court will appoint one to represent you.  

Will I go to jail if I am convicted of theft?

It is unlikely that anyone but the most serious offender will spend any time in jail for this offense.  Most convictions result in supervised or unsupervised probation depending on the nature and severity of the case.  

Last updated:  December 11, 2023