Shoplifting being taken serious by prosecuters www.privateofficer.com
Cowlitz County WA Nov 29 2010 The holiday shopping — and shoplifting — season officially begins today.
Would-be shoplifters beware: Although the majority of Cowlitz County shoplifting cases still are prosecuted as third-degree theft, a misdemeanor, a growing number are being prosecuted as a felony. This trend is the result of national push for tougher laws aimed at organized retail crime, and it can mean lengthy prison sentences for what may sometimes be regarded as petty crime.
Nationally, retailers estimate they lose $15 billion to $30 billion a year to theft, and in 2006 the Washington Legislature moved against what it called “bold, violent and extremely organized” shoplifting.
Lawmakers made it permissible to charge someone with “organized retail theft”— a felony — for shoplifting with an accomplice, stealing at least $750 in goods from two or more stores within six months or possessing at least $750 worth of stolen retail items with an accomplice. The Legislature also made it a felony to shoplift three or more stores within six months, trying to thwart security systems or leaving by an emergency exit. Since 2006, such crimes can be charged as “retail theft with extenuating circumstances.”
“The Legislature gave us a bigger hammer, basically,” Cowlitz County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Michelle Shaffer said last week. “This allows us to get the worst of the offenders, the repeat offenders, the people who rove in shoplifting gangs and hit a bunch of stores over the course of several days or months.”
Suspects like David Eurich — if authorities can ever catch him again.
In the first half of 2007, Eurich acquired a notorious reputation among Longview merchants and police. Between Jan. 26 and July 6, police repeatedly arrested the Kelso-area transient on suspicion of shoplifting from Fred Meyer (twice), Ross, WinCo, Bob’s Sporting Goods, Your Market Place and the 15th Avenue Safeway. Police said he faked a seizure every time to avoid being taken to jail.
The Cowlitz County Prosecutor’s Office charged Eurich, 39, with a barrage of felonies and misdemeanors, including three counts of retail theft with extenuating circumstances and two counts of second-degree burglary.
Eurich disappeared after the July 2007 arrest and has never gone to trial on the charges. Two bench warrants are outstanding for his arrest.
Despite dramatic cases like Eurich’s, local defense attorneys question whether prosecutors are too quick to charge shoplifters with felonies.
“A lot of cases could be better handled as misdemeanors,” said defense attorney John Hays, noting that it costs taxpayers more to prosecute and punish felons.
He said it wasn’t the Legislature’s intent “to give enhanced punishment to a drug addict who shoplifts a $20 item at Penney’s, then goes to Sears and shoplifts a $20 item, then goes to the Bon and shoplifts a $20 item.”
Most of the shoplifting suspects charged with felonies in Cowlitz have been accused of shoplifting at multiple stores or clipping off security tags. Penalties have varied, with some defendants getting the same sentence they would have gotten for misdemeanor theft. A cluster of recent felony shoplifting convictions, for example, resulted in jail sentences ranging from 15 days to a month.
The difference, though, is that those people now get felonies on their records instead of misdemeanors.
Merchants keep watch
So far, the threat of felony-level sentences hasn’t seemed to reduced shoplifting, according to small retailers like Jim Springer, co-owner of Toys and Treasures at Kelso’s Three Rivers Mall.
“As far as pursuing people who shoplift, whether under the old law or the new law, I’m the kind of person who feels you should make an example of everybody who steals,” Springer said. “We can’t let these people feel they can get away with it.”
“I can’t figure out why anybody would want to steal, especially with the stricter laws against stealing,” said Scott Pollard, manager of Lighthouse Gifts at the mall. “When you steal, it hurts the merchants enough to raise their prices.”
Shoplifting rates have remained steady despite the recession. Police and retailers say the hard times aren’t driving people to thievery.
“We don’t see a correlation between socioeconomic status and the rate of theft,” said Kelso Police Capt. Darr Kirk. “Just because somebody is poorer than someone else doesn’t mean they’re more likely to steal.”
Erna Surls, area supervisor for six Hickory Farms stores, agreed that the people who are in need are not the ones doing the stealing.
“It’s the addicts,” she said. “They’re addicted to drugs or they’re addicted to shoplifting.”
With the law having minimal effect, the best safeguards for merchants are extra surveillance cameras and security guards or – in the case of smaller merchants such as Springer- cheaper and more novel measures. He use mirrors on the ceiling, additional customer service and life-size cardboard cutouts that give customers the odd sensation they’re being watched.
“We have so many eyes in here,” Springer said.