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‘Shoplifting as a Sport?’ New Bills and Busts Clamp Down on Crime

The New Mexico House of Representatives last Wednesday passed by a 62 to 3 margin a bill that would enhance penalties for shoplifting based on the amount of merchandise stolen and frequency of arrests.

HB 234 now goes on to the state senate, where it is expected to pass and then be signed by top supporter Gov. Michelle Lujan. The bill, empowering prosecutors to charge perpetrators with the cumulative amount stolen in a 90-day period, puts on the books a new offense of “organized retail crime” to be treated as a second-degree felony. In addition, the legislation would redefine the term “robbery” to include any use or threatened use of violence in the commission of a theft.

“We were having a huge problem with skyrocketing shoplifting, sometimes even with people using guns,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Martha Matthews (D-Albuquerque), told Sourcing Journal. “So we reached the point where our current statutes weren’t sufficient to serve as a deterrent, and we weren’t getting appropriate levels of punishment [when they were].”

The bill’s passage in the House comes on the heels of Lujan’s creation of the Business Advisory Council for Crime Prevention a month earlier meant to ensure business owners have a voice in government decisions.

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New Mexico lost nearly $820 million in retail theft in 2021, according to the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

“We’ll tackle organized crime and the criminals who fund it through retail and commercial theft, smashing the syndicates that are terrorizing our business community,” Lujan said in her Jan. 23 state of the state address in which she promised to add $100 million to the recruitment of more than 1,000 law enforcement officers.

Matthews said she believes the Senate will take up the bill on Friday. The legislation ultimately passed by the House was missing a key piece from its original language, that being a redefinition of “racketeering” to apply to organized retail crime, giving prosecutors authority to access and seize assets as they would with any other organized crime ring.

“Mainly, it made the bill too complicated,” Matthews said, adding that the state’s largely rural nature made it less useful, and that defining organized retail crime as a second-degree felony was sufficient.

Should HB 234 become law, authorities would be able to accumulate the amount of merchandise stolen by an individual in a 90-day period to reach felony levels more easily.

The definition of organized retail crime in the bill applies to those who steal, or help others to steal at least $2,500 in a 12-month period. It applies to those who “… receive, purchase or possess merchandise worth $2,500 or more over the course of a year knowing or believing it is stolen; or recruits, coordinates, organizes, supervises, directs, manages, or finances another to commit organized retail crime or shoplifting (regardless of the amount of merchandise stolen).”

Crimes satisfying this definition would be considered second-degree felonies.

“For far too long, the citizens of New Mexico have been subject to persistent criminal activity,” said Steven B. Chavez, chair of the newly formed council. “I’m optimistic about working with the governor and her team to gain the support of the business community to achieve real change in our state.”

Matthews said the New Mexico bill is most modeled after the Massachusetts anti-shoplifting law passed at the end of last year. What makes her bill unique, she said, is the feedback received from all sides, including defense attorneys.

“We had not only input from law enforcement, but from the public defenders’ office, too,” Matthews said. “We wanted to be sure our laws are [effective], make sense and aren’t over-reaching and they were helpful. They weren’t going to support a crime bill—that’s not how it works—but they wanted to make sure there were fair practices, that it was a clear bill and well-defined.”

While the state legislature in New Mexico is stepping up in novel ways to aid prosecutors, law enforcement across the country in Yonkers, N.Y. is going undercover to curb shoplifting in the city of more than 200,000, just north of Manhattan.

Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano said that although crime has steadily declined in the past 10 years, property crimes have risen by 10 percent, especially in the retail-heavy shopping area around Central Park Avenue.

“Our obligation is to serve and protect our businesses and their customers, and with the precision approach by our police department to these offenses, we can drive out these criminals,” Spano said. “These thieves are looking at shoplifting as a sport, but we want them to know—it’s game over when they get to Yonkers.”

The initiative focuses on putting plain-clothes officers in retail centers, particularly big-box stores to assist loss prevention in stopping thieves. A pattern crimes unit will be deployed to patrol parking lots, a communications division will prioritize shoplifting calls for response and field intelligence officers will follow up on outstanding cases.

Officials did not say how much this enhanced effort will cost, but emphasized the importance of keeping businesses of all stripes in a suburb that consistently ranks among America’s safest small cities.

“We need a commitment from our local businesses,” Spano said. “We want to keep them in Yonkers and thrive here, so their partnership in charging those who commit crimes in their stores is the first step in stemming this tide.”

Meanwhile, in neighboring New York City, Mayor Eric Adams on Monday announced in a radio interview that the city recommended that all shop owners adopt a no-face-mask-upon-entry policy. This order flies in the face of more than two years of facemask mandates in America’s most densely populated city where many still wear face coverings in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are putting out a clear call to all of our shops, do not allow people to enter the store without taking off their face mask,” Adams said in an interview on 1010 WINS on Monday. “And then once they’re inside, they can continue to wear it if they so desire to do so.”

As promising as efforts like those promised in Yonkers sound, stronger police presence at retail stores also means more firearms on the premises and greater potential for escalation when confronting suspects.

Saturday morning at a Walmart in Phoenix, a would-be shoplifter was approached by loss prevention staff when a uniformed, off-duty police officer came to assist just outside the entryway. According to reports, the man then pointed a gun at the Walmart employee and the officer, prompting the officer to fire at the suspect. The bullet missed, however, and the suspect, later identified as 35-year-old David Apana, ran back to the center of the store, still armed. He made his way out of the back of the store and was later apprehended, the gun found near the spot was he was arrested, and later charged with multiple felonies, including aggravated assault of a police officer.

No damage to persons or property was reported as a result of the officer’s misfire.

This incident increases the tally of gun-related incidents at Walmart to more than 364 since 2020, by far the most of any retailer, according to a Guns Down America study published last fall.

“We are troubled by what happened this morning in our store in Phoenix and are glad no customers or associates were injured,” Walmart said in a statement released Saturday. “Our goal is to give customers a safe experience and we are continuously reviewing our protocols to better serve and protect them during these types of incidents. We will continue to work with local law enforcement and are referring any additional questions to them.”

In better news on the crime-fighting front on Saturday, police in Georgia’s Bibb County arrested a 45-year-old man who allegedly stole several pairs of Nike shoes and men’s clothing from a nearby Kohl’s on Oct. 29 and again on Nov. 4. Hypothetically, the value of the merchandise was $235 and $580, which, under the New Mexico bill that just passed the House, would allow authorities to roll those two events into one charge and potentially reach the threshold for a felony or newly defined organized retail crime charge.

New Mexico still has some catching up to do to reach the enforcement standard in Georgia, which already has one of the lowest felony thresholds in the nation at $500 for one incident, or a cumulative total of $500 within a period of six months. This law, updated in 2020, also requires “not less than 30 days or confinement in a ‘special alternative incarceration-probation boot camp,’” upon a third shoplifting arrest, felony, misdemeanor or combination of the two.

Also in Georgia, a suspect may be arrested for shoplifting even without leaving the store.

Many blame soft-on-shoplifting policies for what’s happened in Portland, perhaps the city hit hardest by the shoplifting epidemic. The problem has grown so severe that Walmart announced it will be closing its two remaining locations in Rose City on March 24. On Sunday, police conducted their second anti-shoplifting ‘blitz’ of the year. Focused not only on retail theft, but on property crime in general, the effort netted 34 arrests and $3,000 in recovered merchandise.

Walmart announced last month it was closing a tech hub in Portland, along with others in Carlsbad, Calif. and Austin, Texas.