If you are in the US on a visa, you should take care to follow the law. Any criminal charges against you can serve as grounds to revoke your visa and send you home. Many visa holders believe this means they cannot commit any major crimes, like drug crimes or violating US immigration laws. But even being convicted of minor crimes, and in some cases misdemeanors, can result in deportation and prevent you from returning to the US on any other type of visa for years.
Shoplifting is an example of a “minor” crime that can lead to federal removal proceedings. Some countries do not prosecute shoplifting crimes to the extent it is done in the US, so visitors from other countries may be unaware of how potentially devastating shoplifting charges can be for their immigration status.
New Jersey Shoplifting Laws
Foreign citizens living in New Jersey on visas may incorrectly believe if they steal something, all they have to do is give the merchandise back and all will be forgiven. Unfortunately, most shop owners and other retailers do not forgive shoplifting so easily and many will seek to prosecute those who have taken items from their stores.
Shoplifting is the taking of an item from a store with the intent of not paying for it. It also includes switching or changing price tags on items, taking a shopping cart from a store, hiding or concealing merchandise on your person or in a bag, taking goods from one container and putting them in another or under-ringing the price of items at the check-out register.
In New Jersey, shoplifting is charged as either a disorderly person offense (misdemeanor) or an indictable offense (felony). Generally, a first time offender who violates the state’s shoplifting laws is required to complete 10 days of community service. However, the penalties for even a first offense can include up to six months in jail or longer, depending on the severity of the charges. Under state law, the retail value of the items stolen determines the severity (“gradation”) of the charges:
- 2nd degree: $75,000+
- 3rd degree: $500-$75,000
- 4th degree: $200-$500
Second degree charges carry a sentence from 5-10 years in prison. Third degree charges carry 3-5 years in prison and 4th degree charges carry up to 18 months in prison if convicted.
In addition to the possible jail time, community service, fines and other fees, those living in the state on student visas, temporary worker visas or with another immigrant status must also worry about the impact a shoplifting conviction can have on their immigration status.
Crimes of Moral Turpitude
One of the conditions for holding a US-issued immigrant visa is following all US federal and state laws. When a visa holder fails to do this, there can be serious consequences. Even charges as seemingly minor as shoplifting can trigger removal proceedings.
Under federal immigration laws, theft crimes are considered crimes of moral turpitude. If a visa holder is convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, he or she may be deported from the country. A crime of moral turpitude is one that shocks the public conscious or is in contrast to community standards of justice, honesty and good morals.
Other examples of crimes of moral turpitude include:
- Transporting or receiving stolen goods
- Voluntary manslaughter
To be a deportable offense, the visa holder does not have to be the one who actually committed the crime. Conspiracy, attempt, aiding and abetting and/or accessory charges related to a crime of moral turpitude also can result in removal from the country.
In addition to mandatory deportation, commission of certain crimes also can result in an alien not being permitted to re-enter the US for 5-20 years. Conviction for an aggravated felony, however, will permanently bar an alien from ever returning to the United States again, even on a visitor’s visa.
Theft and burglary crimes can be considered aggravated felonies under federal law if they require imprisonment for at least five years. Under New Jersey law, third degree and higher shoplifting charges may trigger mandatory deportation.
Lastly, any crime, whether or not a crime of moral turpitude, that carries a minimum sentence of one year in jail or prison can also result in mandatory deportation, even if the person convicted of the crime receives a suspended sentence (i.e. does not have to actually serve the time). This would include 4th degree shoplifting charges and higher in New Jersey.
It is not only non-immigrant visa holders who need to be aware of the impact of being convicted of a crime on their immigration status. Those who hold valid legal resident status (green card) can also face removal proceedings for violating federal and state laws. Permanent residents who are convicted of an aggravated felony may be removed permanently from the country, no matter how long they have resided in the US or if they have family living here.
Legal residents who want to become naturalized US citizens may find their path temporarily or even permanently blocked if they do not have a clean record. In order to complete the naturalization process, immigrants must have good moral character. Conviction for crimes of moral turpitude may temporarily prevent an immigrant from becoming a US citizen while conviction for an aggravated felony will permanently bar a citizenship application.
If you have been charged with shoplifting or another crime, it is important to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. US immigration laws are very complicated and can be very unforgiving. You want to have an advocate who appreciates the seriousness of your situation and can help you maneuver through the complex legal system on your side. You do not want to face these charges on your own.