Retail theft outrage over brazen smash-and-grabs, shoplifting sprees, could bring California crackdown

A debate is emerging in California over whether a return to tough-on-crime policies is needed to deter brazen smash-and-grab robberies and shoplifting sprees caught on camera throughout the state.

A trio of state lawmakers on Thursday unveiled the California Retail Theft Reduction Act, which would focus on “professional retail thieves,” creating a new crime with a penalty as long as three years behind bars for the possession of stolen property with the intent to sell. Because “intent to sell” can be difficult to prove in court, evidence can include repeated offenses or possessing an amount of goods that is “inconsistent with personal use.”

The act, according to Rep. Rich Zbur, D-Los Angeles, also would target:

  • Aggregation: The value of thefts from different retailers can be added up so they can be prosecuted as grand theft.
  • Resellers: Online sellers would be required to maintain records to show that goods were obtained legally and large retailers would be required to report “theft data” (though details remain unclear).
  • Enforcement: Police could arrest shoplifters based on a witness’ sworn statement or video footage of a crime.
  • Intervention: Courts could refer some shoplifters to alternative programs instead of jail or prison.

“Organized retail theft is having a chilling effect on our communities,” Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, D-Salinas, said.  “Crime, like everything, evolves. And criminal enterprises are using new and different ways to get around current prohibitions … It is our responsibility to ensure that our laws are addressing the situation at hand.”

In 2014, California voters approved Prop. 47, classifying property theft valued under $950 as a misdemeanor, in an effort to thin out overcrowded jails.

A decade later, retail theft is on the minds of voters as videos circulate of dozens of people stealing from high-end stores and business owners are assaulted during robberies.

Los Angeles Police Department data aggregated by the nonprofit Crosstown found that shoplifting rose by 81% from 2022 to 2023, and retail crime generally rose by 15%.

Data from the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, show shoplifting crimes jumped 29% in California from 2019 to 2022. Commercial burglary and robbery have both increased since 2019.

In 2022, the state of California provided a grant program for law enforcement agencies that needed funding to address retail theft locally. Thirty-one police departments statewide have been awarded more than $240 million through the program.

Zbur said the new bill can be enacted and signed into law without a ballot measure to overhaul Prop. 47.

In January, two other Assemblymen proposed Assembly Bill 1772.

Under AB 1772, anyone convicted of petty theft or shoplifting who has also had at least two prior theft convictions totaling at least $950 worth of merchandise could be charged with grand theft and go to jail for up to three years.

That bill, if passed and signed by the governor, would not become law unless voters approve it in the general election.

The bill was introduced by Assemblymembers James Ramos (D-San Bernardino) and Avelino Valencia (D-Anaheim) in the Public Safety Committee. It was signed by 16 co-authors, Republican and Democrat.

“The disturbing increase in retail crime has left our constituents and business leaders fearful and anxious to see solutions,” Ramos said in a statement. “It is time to make the necessary adjustments so that we can hold bad actors accountable and restore justice in our communities.”

Among the bill’s supporters are several retail business organizations, including the California Grocers Association, the California Retailers Association, and the California Business Properties Association. The CBPA serves as a lobbying group representing over 10,000 business owners around the state.

“The unintended consequences of Proposition 47 are so visibly apparent to all of us right now that there is momentum, and there are legs to fix this in the legislature,” said California Business Properties Association CEO Matthew Hargrove. “This has to be addressed.”

Several Orange County legislators have also introduced bills addressing retail theft, including Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris, D-Irvine. Her recently filed AB 2438 takes aim at those who act in tandem with at least two other people to steal or destroy property while committing a felony; it creates an enhanced penalty of up to three years. And Democrat Sen. Bob Archuleta’s SB 923 also would increase penalties for repeat offenders.

Wal-Mart and Target, along with two Democratic California mayors, have expressed support for ballot measures that would weaken Prop. 47.

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