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You are correct that the maximum penalty for misdemeanor shoplifting is $500 and/or 30 days in jail. However, if the value shoplifted exceeds $1000, that would be felony shoplifting punishable by a fine of up to $1000 and/or up to 5 years in prison. These are the penalties set forth by South Carolina Statutes Section 16-13-110 and a judge may not exceed those penalties assuming an individual is charged under that statute.
It could be that the officers were trying to intimidate you, get you talking, and get you to make a damaging statement. Alternatively, it could be that you were charged under a different statute (many times, crimes can be charged in a variety of ways). If you would like, you can check your paperwork and see which statute you've been charged under (it will appear as a series of numbers like those above) and if there's a different statute cited, I can look up the penalties pursuant to that statute for you.
If an individual cannot pay a fine outright, a payment plan may be arranged with the court
Your next step is to retain an attorney. This isn't something you want to try to handle yourself. If you cannot afford one, the court can appoint an attorney for you. You would need to ask the court to do so at your next court appearance.
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