Is shoplifting now punishable by death in the U.S.?
Shoplifting is the act of knowingly taking goods from an establishment in which they are displayed for sale, without paying for them. In the U.S., store employees have certain powers of arrest. For instance, store employees may detain suspects outside of and inside the store premises if they believe an individual is attempting to take or, has unlawfully taken merchandise.
Store employees also have a certain level of citizen’s arrest powers. However, this power only extends to felony offenses and not misdemeanors. In the U.S., shoplifting is a misdemeanor not a felony. Therefore, the crime should not be punishable by death.
The Penalty for Shoplifting in the U.S.
In 2012, an off duty police officer shot a woman who he suspected was shoplifting at Wal-Mart. At the time he shot her, two children were seated in the back of the car. Six years after this particular incident, a security guard opened fire on a homeless man that he suspected was shoplifting at a Hollywood Walgreens.
Then in 2019, reports surfaced that four individuals rushed into a Pine Hills Wal-Mart and attempted to steal baby diapers. A Wal-Mart employee approached the suspected shoplifters, while they were loading the merchandise in the back of a car. After he approached the suspected shoplifters, an armed customer shot one of them with a gun. During the same year, a Walgreens’ clerk suspected a woman of shoplifting and called a friend for assistance. The friend arrived with a gun—confronted the woman—and shot her.
There is more. In 2022, a sergeant shot and killed a man who Dollar General employees suspected was shoplifting. While law enforcement officers contend the man had a criminal history, witnesses assert the man was a friendly regular in the neighborhood who should not have been shot.
The most recent shoplifting case that appears to be punishable by death in the U.S. is the Tysons Corner Mall incident. Employees at the Tysons Corner Mall suspected a Virginia man of shoplifting designer sunglasses. Loss prevention staff then called Virginia police officers, who chased the man into the forest. The policer officers shot and killed him. Despite conflicting reports, Chief Kevin Davis admits that officers found no weapon at the scene.
Should a Suspected Shoplifter be Shot Based on their Criminal Background?
According to Davis, the suspect in the February 2023 incident was well known to police in Virginia and had a “significant violent criminal history.” With this statement, Davis seems to be suggesting that law enforcement’s shooting of the suspect was justified.
The first thing that needs to be said is that I do not condone criminality despite the argument I will now present. The suspect’s alleged criminal record does not justify the shooting. First, it is unlikely that Macy’s Department store employees knew the suspect’s identity at the time of the incident or had access to his criminal history. Second, it is unlikely that law enforcement knew or had access to the same. To identify an individual, law enforcement officers would need to ask for the individual’s government vitals and then run it through their police system. It is unlikely Virginia police carried out this step before the suspect fled the scene. Indeed, Davis admits that when officers approached the suspect he fled.
Third, the suspect was running away from police officers. This is an indication that the suspect was in flight not fight mode. During the flight response to threat, the brain signals to the individual that there is danger. It then alerts the body to escape and flee to safety. This response is quite different from the fight response, where the body may experience a rush of adrenaline. In this response, an individual may resort to physical violence and aggression, which we can agree, did not happen during this incident. To reiterate, law enforcement officers found no weapon at the scene. Even if they thought the suspect would become violent, it was clear that he was out-numbered by two police officers. In other words, the police officers had the potential to overpower the suspect. This leads me to believe the shooting was not justified.
Shoplifting now punishable by death in the U.S.? Are We Following in the Footsteps of Non-democratic Regimes?
Afghanistan, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and North Korea impose a death penalty for theft, which leads me to believe we are following in the footsteps of these non-democratic regimes.
Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibits arbitrary deprivation of life. It also provides for specific conditions for the imposition of the death penalty with respect to countries that have not yet abolished it. Although the U.S. ratified the Covenant on June 08, 1992, individual citizens cannot bring a complaint under the protocol.
The Human Rights Committee has articulated that countries such as the U.S.—that have not abolished the death penalty—only may impose the death penalty for the most serious crimes. This means the U.S. must interpret the term “most serious crimes” restrictively and should appertain only to crimes of extreme gravity, involving intentional killing. Crimes not resulting directly and intentionally in death, such as economic crimes, can never serve as the basis for the imposition of the death penalty under Article 6.
 Wikipedia. (n.d.). Shoplifting. Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoplifting
 HRC (2019). Capital punishment and the implementation of the safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty. A/HRC/42/28, at para. 8. Available at: https://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/42/28