Wal-mart's recent introduction of self-checkout services has resulted in more theft charges for customers. Self-checkout allows customers to scan merchandise themselves and pay for the merchandise without the assistance of a store clerk. The benefit of this system is that the store can have more check-out stations open for customers without paying cashiers to staff the registers. More check-out stations means less wait-time in check-out lines for customers. Self-checkout saves Wal-mart staff expenses.
However, self-checkout comes with a cost for Wal-mart. Self-checkout is vulnerable to intentional abuse and mistakes by customers during the check-out process. Wal-mart loss prevention staff in Salisbury and Fruitland, Maryland, report that they have seen an increase in thefts by customers using the self-checkout stations. It is not hard to imagine how easy it is for customers to bag merchandise without scanning all of their items. A customer who does this intentionally commits the crime of theft when they leave the store without paying for the unscanned items. Of course, it is also possible for customers to mistakenly fail to scan an item or two during the check-out process. Failing to pay for an item due to a genuine mistake is not theft because theft requires an intent to steal. The difficulty faced by Wal-mart loss prevention staff, criminal prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and juries is determining when the failure to scan an item at self-checkout was intentional and when it was an honest mistake. This can be a very subjective conclusion that must be made based on circumstantial evidence unless there is an admission by the customer that he intended to steal (which is unlikely). At least the State has the burden of proving that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But this is not much solace for the innocent customer who mistakenly fails to scan an item and finds himself charged with theft, hiring a lawyer, and going to court with his freedom and reputation on the line.
I was recently in the Wicomico County District Court waiting for my case to be called by the State when I watched a college student attempt to represent herself in court. She was charged with theft for stealing from Wal-mart at a self-checkout station. She did not have an attorney. She plead guilty. The prosecutor read the statement of facts to support her conviction reciting how she did not scan merchandise at the Wal-mart self-checkout station. Then the defendant proceeded to tell the judge that she made an honest mistake when she failed to scan her alleged stolen items. The judge asked her why she was pleading guilty. She said because it was her responsibility to scan all the items and she didn't. The judge refused to accept her guilty plea, postponed her case and told her to get an attorney. This young lady needed a good defense attorney to guide her through the criminal justice system and defend her in court. She had a defense to the theft charge that she wasn't even aware of because she did not have an attorney.
As our society becomes more automated, opportunities arise to abuse these convenient systems for personal advantage. However, these systems also create situations that embroil innocent persons in the criminal justice system. This is yet another reason why a person charged with a theft crime should retain a good criminal defense attorney.