California needs tougher retail theft law, prosecutors, retailers say

Spurred on by a recent spate of large-scale armed robberies, prosecutors and retailers are pushing back claims by the California Governor and Attorney General that they have enough tools to tackle retail theft in following a voter-approved easing laws.

“We cannot function as a society where we have repeatedly said to people that there is no consequence in stealing other people’s property,” said Vern Pierson, past president of the California District Attorneys Association and county attorney. from El Dorado.

The complaints came as authorities on Friday announced what they called “one of the biggest retail thefts in California history,” an $ 8 million transport of stolen goods to retailers from the San Francisco Bay Area, including CVS, Target and Walgreens, as well as $ 85,000. in cash and nearly $ 1.9 million from various bank accounts.

While shoplifting is a growing problem, recent large-scale thefts in California and elsewhere, in which groups of individuals brazenly rush into stores and take merchandise in plain sight, “the take to a whole new level, ”said the president and CEO of the California Retailers Association. Rachel Michelin.

“We kind of feel like we’re being attacked,” she said.

National retail groups last month estimated annual losses in the tens of billions of dollars. Attorneys general in some states are backing a congressional bill that would require more prevention efforts from large online marketplaces, where experts say many of the stolen goods are closed.

Thefts have also become a political issue, particularly in California, where critics blame progressive policies like Proposition 47, a voting measure approved by 60% of state voters in 2014 that reduced some theft offenses and drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors.

California Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta separately argued on Wednesday that police and prosecutors still have the legal tools to prosecute the perpetrators, and Newsom called some local officials who he said had chosen not to do it.

“It is clearly wrong to say that we have enough laws in place to solve this problem, because it obviously will not go away and will not go away,” replied John Kabateck, director of the California section of the National Federation of Independents. Companies.

Yet arrests are taking place and the five people who pleaded guilty to the massive bust Bonta announced on Friday did so under existing laws for various crimes, including conspiracy to commit organized retail theft. , concealment of stolen goods and money laundering.

The crimes involved date from 2018 to 2020, pointing out that while the current spike in brazen thefts is attracting attention, it is not a new phenomenon.

San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos said the five arrested were part of a network “responsible for an international distribution center” that was delivering stolen goods in retail thefts, burglaries, burglaries commercial and residential to other countries, with money returned to the United States.

Bonta said the calls “should serve as a wake-up call to anyone considering participating in organized retail robberies and brazen crimes.”

The main defendant in the case will be sentenced to six years in state prison, but the others face much lighter sentences, including probation and suspended prison terms.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles authorities on Thursday announced 14 arrests in 11 recent armed robberies. And San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin last week charged nine people with looting targets, including Louis Vuitton and other Union Square retailers.

Newsom has repeatedly said that prosecutors can “stack” multiple thefts for misdemeanors into one felony charge. But Pierson, the district attorney, said that “reveals a significant misunderstanding of the law as a result of Proposition 47”.

Subsequent court rulings demand that the repeated thefts involve the same victim and the same conduct ultimately amounting to a loss greater than $ 950, which Pierson said “is very difficult to prove.”

“The law here in California is very clear – we can’t just stack petty theft in a crime,” he said.

Will Matthews, spokesperson for Californians for Safety and Justice, which sponsored Proposition 47, cited sections of the criminal code for receiving stolen goods, organized retail theft, conspiracy, robbery or gang crimes that, according to him, offer “several avenues” to bring more serious accusations.

“Unfortunately, too many of our law enforcement officials… are choosing to play a blame game,” he said.

A law firm that worked with the association of prosecutors last week introduced a voting measure that would allow up to one year in prison for anyone who had previously been convicted twice for various thefts.

“Brazen theft in retail, car theft, porch hacking and other similar crimes are out of control,” says the initiative proposed by lawyer Thomas Hiltachk.

But 62% of California voters last year rejected a larger effort to overturn parts of Proposition 47 and other recent laws easing criminal penalties.

“Californians have made it clear on several occasions that they want us to prioritize our investments in crime prevention over continued investments in failing incarceration,” said Matthews.

Although Newsom and Bonta have defended the current law as adequate, the retail association’s Michelin praised assistants to the governor for reaching out to her last week to see if more needs to be done.

She believes there may be common ground to re-establish a “carrot and stick” approach that would allow shoplifters to participate in diversion programs instead of jail.

“Often they are homeless, they have additional problems, but there is no reason for them to go out and use the services. They will just continue to shoplift, ”she said.

These lower-level thieves are in turn often recruited by retail flight operators, experts say. And in another affront to brick-and-mortar stores already struggling with online sales, stolen goods are often then sold online.

It’s a double whammy, especially for small businesses that can’t afford increased security, Kabateck said: They are grappling with supply chain shortages this year just to see the products they they get stolen from the shelves.

Newsom said blaming Proposition 47 is too simplistic and pointed to ever lower property crime rates since the measure came into effect seven years ago.

That’s because few retailers report the crimes, Pierson and Michelin said separately.

“I know on the retail side they’re underreported because if someone comes in and steals less than $ 950 – I’ve heard that a couple of times – there’s no reason; the police don’t have the resources to go out and do anything. And if they do, they’re just going to write them a note, ”Michelin said.

She proposes to work with her members and the administration of Newsom next year to better collect this data, because for the moment “even the stores do not know because they often let them go”.

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