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California lawmaker wants to crack down on organized retail theft by making it a felony

California lawmaker wants to crack down on organized retail theft by making it a felony
Bottles of Clorox bleach sit on a shelf at a grocery store. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

A state assemblyman wants to create a new felony offense to penalize organized retail theft, a crime some have called an unintended consequence of a 2014 ballot initiative that reduced drug possession and some theft crimes to misdemeanors.

Under Proposition 47, a theft crime has to involve $950 worth of property in a single incident to rise to a felony. That threshold, some retailers have said, allows members of organized crime rings to steal from multiple stores, or from the same store numerous times a day, without facing tougher punishment.

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Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) first proposed a change last year by asking voters to amend Proposition 47 — which passed with 60% approval — making it a felony to steal $950 worth of property in a year. But after much debate, his legislation was shelved in February in the Assembly Public Safety Committee. Now its chairman, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), is pushing a bill of his own to tackle the problem.

His legislation would make it a crime to work with others to steal goods or buy stolen goods with the intent to sell, exchange or return the merchandise. Under the proposal, organized retail theft would fall under a category of crimes known as "wobblers," meaning prosecutors are able to charge them as misdemeanors or felonies depending on severity.

Jones-Sawyer said his bill, unlike the previous proposal, would address concerns from store owners without stepping back from the overall goal of the voter initiative: to stop counties from incarcerating people for minor or petty crimes that are sometimes tied to mental health or drug abuse issues.

Criminals "are going to get together and figure out loopholes…. It doesn't escape me that is happening, and I am very sensitive to that," Jones-Sawyer said. "But I also am very concerned [that] we don't do a shotgun method, where we just lock up everybody."

Jones-Sawyer said he worked on Assembly Bill 1065 in meetings with Gov. Jerry Brown, retailers and law enforcement, and it has the support of the California Retailers Assn., several police and sheriff associations and at least six district attorneys.

Supporters said they wanted to make sure to punish serious crime rings, not homeless people or parents struggling to feed their families.

"Right down the middle is how we crafted this bill," Jones-Sawyer said.

How pervasive organized retail theft is and whether it has been exacerbated by Proposition 47 is unclear. The National Retail Federation found that 95% of merchants across the U.S. reported losses from coordinated theft, according to its 2017 survey, the latest available. But it released no statewide data.

Meanwhile, the property crime rate in California was down 3.3% in 2016, though it remained above the national average, according to the latest available data analyzed by the Public Policy Institute of California. Of those crimes, 64% were larceny thefts, 19% were burglaries and 17% were auto thefts.

Bill Dombrowski, president and chief executive of the California Retailers Assn., said there was too much conflicting evidence to blame the voter initiative.

"I am not ready to go there," he said.

But he added that retailers had long been asking lawmakers for an organized theft statute.

"Over the last few years, the retail industry has seen an increase in shoplifting and theft across the country," he said. "At the same time, California has historically been the retail theft capital of the country."

But not all lawmakers who have urged changes to Proposition 47 support the Jones-Sawyer legislation, which would create a new criminal offense altogether. Cooper and supporters of his original proposal contend that organized retail theft as defined in Jones-Sawyer's bill would be too difficult for prosecutors to prove in court, requiring them to show both conspiracy and a defendant's intent.

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Cooper argues that the legislation is meant to distract from his efforts to put the issue before voters in a larger debate over the direction of crime and punishment in California. His original bill had been sponsored by the California Grocers Assn., the California Police Chiefs Assn. and Crime Victims United of California.

Now the language from that effort is part of a broader proposed voter initiative to expand the list of crimes classified as violent felonies used to determine which California prison inmates are eligible for early parole under a 2016 ballot measure, Proposition 57. Cooper and supporters are working to collect signatures in hopes of qualifying the measure for the November ballot.

In a statement, Cooper said his office had tried to partner with the California Retail Assn. but the organization instead co-sponsored legislation "that will have little effect on the growing problem of serial retail theft."

"AB 1065 ignores the damage serial theft is having on small business owners, especially on the small family owned stores that serve our most vulnerable neighborhoods," Cooper said.

Dombrowski said Cooper has a different crime and punishment agenda.

"As an industry we don't really want any part of that fight," he said.

Twitter: @jazmineulloa

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