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New bill targets retail theft

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A new bill championed by state prosecutors, mayors and law enforcement would elevate charges for retail theft to a Class B felony were at least two people involved, regardless of the value of the item stolen.

Sponsored by Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Morris, House Bill 288 would not only increase penalties for retail theft committed by individuals in some cases, but introduce a new criminal statute of organized retail theft.

The bill was promoted by the Alabama District Attorneys Association at the State House during a press conference Thursday, where Montgomery District Attorney Daryl Bailey called for lawmakers to support the piece of legislation.

“Organized retail theft is a $100 billion industry in the United States; this tool will be a vital tool for businesses, law enforcement and prosecutors to use and combat these crimes,” Bailey said. “Currently, Alabama does not have an organized retail theft statute – this bill will change that.”

The retail theft portion of the bill would increase penalties for those who shoplift items valued between $500 and $1,500.

Under existing law, shoplifting items valued between $500 and $1,500 constitutes theft in the third degree, a Class D felony, which carries no mandatory prison time. Under the new bill, shoplifting items valued between $500 and $1,500 would instead constitute theft in the second degree, a Class C felony, which can carry a sentence between one and ten years in prison.

The bill also introduces new criminal charges for those shoplifting in groups, or with the intent to resell the stolen items.

Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth spoke in support of increasing penalties for retail theft.

“When the bill is signed into law, every time two or more people conspire to commit the crime of theft, they will fall under the retail theft bill and will be prosecuted as organized criminals,” Ainsworth said. 

“When groups raid an Alabama business with plans to resell that merchandise for profit that goes to fund criminal enterprises and further criminal activity, they will know Alabama recognizes their role in organized crime,” Ainsworth said. “We will not ignore the role they play in damaging our state’s business climate and opportunity.”

Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth speaks at an Apr. 13 press conference at the State House.

The bill defines the term “organized retail theft” as either “obtaining or exerting unauthorized control over retail merchandise with the intent to deprive the owner or retail merchant of his or her property,” or shoplifting with the intent to resell the stolen items.

For someone to be charged with committing the act of organized retail theft – a Class B felony – that person would have to shoplift “in association with one or more other persons,” regardless of the value of the item stolen.

Barry Matson, the executive director of the Office of Prosecution Services and the ADAA, told Alabama Daily News that it was not the intent of the bill to impose Class B felony charges on those that shoplift low-valued items in groups of two or more.

“The goal is to attack the true organized crime,” Matson told Alabama Daily News. “We are not trying to say ‘make sure if you go steal, go by yourself because if you’ve got buddies with you, you’re going to get a Class B felony.’ That’s not our intent, and I’m sure we’ll iron that language out so that’s clear.”

Nevertheless, when asked if two people who conspired together to shoplift an item valued at below $500, Matson said that under the bill as currently written, the Class B felony charge could be applicable.

“If a store doesn’t want to use that statute, they don’t have to; that’s a choice with the store,” Matson said. “It wouldn’t be automatic, they could still be charged if it’s $499 with a Class A misdemeanor; it doesn’t have to go to organized crime, (but) it could.”

Matson said, however, that he was “certain” that as the bill goes through committees, “that part will be ironed out.”

Organized retail theft has grown significantly over the years, with retailers reporting a 26.5% increase nationally from 2020 to 2021, according to a 2022 survey of more than 50 major retailers.

Andrew Fox, a corporate organized retail crime investigator for Home Depot, spoke about the need of new laws to target organized retail theft.

“This isn’t petty shoplifting; these are professional thieves stealing from retailers – large and small – day in and day out in the communities that we all live and work in,” Fox said. “They’re stealing these items solely for the purpose of resale profit.”

Andrew Fox, corporate organized retail crime investigator for Home Depot, speaks at an Apr. 13 press conference.

The bill will have its detractors. A vocal advocate of reducing the state’s incarceration rate, Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said the bill was “almost like a (racketeering) law for shoplifters,” and told Alabama Daily News that if lawmakers don’t shift their approach on crime soon, the state could be in danger of its prison system being partially or fully taken over by the federal government.

“I say it all the time, there’s no such thing as tough on crime or soft on crime; it’s smart on crime or stupid on crime, and we’re being stupid on crime,” England said. “This is 1990s criminal justice policy that is just going to blow up our prison system.”

In December of 2020, the federal government filed a lawsuit against the state of Alabama for the state of its prisons, alleging inmates to be undergoing harsh, inhumane and dangerous conditions. Were a judge to rule in favor of the lawsuit, Alabama’s prison system could go into full or partial control of the federal government.

“The Legislature is responsible for governing the system, and we need to reject things that got us into the trouble that we’re in right now, which is incarcerating drug offenders, nonviolent offenders, and the list goes on,” England said.

“This is an outright embracing of policies that the rest of the country has roundly rejected, so we’re just essentially handing evidence to the court system to shut our prison system down.”

The bill will first be reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee, a committee England sits on as the ranking minority member. No date has been scheduled as of Friday.

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