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Theft in the Third Degree

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to represent many wonderful people in horrible situations, and too many of them I’ve represented multiple times.  When I look back on the criminal history of these frequent flyers, it’s clear to me what criminal conviction turned them from law-abiding persons who made a mistake into life-long criminals.  Surprisingly, it’s not the drug charge, or the DUI, nor is it the petty domestic violence conviction.  Society is ready to forgive those who have struggled with addiction or anger problems, but theft is a biblical crime that is universally despised and carries with it life-long consequences in addition to serious stigmas.  

The subcategory of Third Degree Theft is a gross misdemeanor which carries with it a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail and a $5000 fine.  It is defined as “theft of property or services which… does not exceed seven hundred fifty dollars in value.”  See RCW 9A.56.050.  At least 90% of theft three charges concern alleged shoplifting.

COLLATERAL CONSEQUENCES

In addition to jail and fines, those convicted of Theft in the Third Degree can be expected to pay restitution to the victim and attend questionable “consumer awareness classes.” It is not uncommon for courts to impose community service hours also.

Those convicted of shop-lifting will be formally trespassed from the store where the alleged crime transpired.  If the victim store was a chain like Walmart, the defendant can expect to be banned from all Walmart properties nationwide and if they return and commit a subsequent theft three, they could be charged with Burglary – a class B felony that carries with it a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.  For low-income people living in communities where superstores like Walmart are the only game in town for groceries and pharmaceuticals, this exclusion can be tantamount to a death sentence.   

What is particularly damaging about Theft in the Third Degree is that, regardless of the scale of the theft, there are serious professional consequences.

One former client of mine was charged with shoplifting a single bottle of nail polish valued at $5.99 from Walmart.  She was 22 years old at the time, and had no prior criminal history.  It took the government more than a year to formally bring charges against her and in the mean time she got a job as a CNA at a Tacoma area assisted living community while earning a degree part-time.

The charge threatened her job, because those convicted of theft cannot work with “vulnerable populations” such as the elderly (even though the mentality to steal nail polish from Walmart is dramatically different from that required to steal jewelry or medicine from bed-bound grandparents).  Had she been convicted, she would have lost her CNA license, and future academic or professional opportunities would have been delayed if not derailed.  This is dramatically disproportionate to the offense.

Another consequence of conviction is that those convicted of Theft in the Third Degree can’t act as executors of estates, potentially complicating wills executed prior to the conviction.

Finally, one major consequence to being convicted of any category of theft is that it is a crime of dishonesty.  See Washington Evidence Rule 609. This means that if you subsequently are a party to an action in court again – be it criminal or civil – and you take the stand to testify – your theft conviction can be used to impeach your credibility for at least the subsequent 10 years.  This is true regardless of the nature of the legal action.  This could be used against you in a child custody battle or a personal injury lawsuit.

WHAT IF I’M CHARGED WITH THIRD DEGREE THEFT?  WHAT CAN I DO?


Not many attorneys in private practice want to represent people charged with shoplifting.  The majority of the people charged with it are unemployed and stealing for necessity and are not deemed “profitable.”  However, there are things an aggressive attorney can do to get your case dismissed and safeguard your future, and they can do it at a price that is affordable.  

The Law Office of Chris Van Vechten is passionate about defending those charged with Theft in the Third Degree.  Chris Van Vechten has worked to persuade the Tacoma City Council to decriminalize at least some categories of theft within city limits; arguing that the negative societal impacts outstrip the perceived harm.  

Committed to being both affordable and aggressive, Chris will work with you to make representation possible.