Commentary: Finding the Right Balance -- Addressing Organized Retail Theft While Upholding Civil Liberties

Commentary: Finding the Right Balance -- Addressing Organized Retail Theft While Upholding Civil Liberties

WRITTEN BY ASSEMBLY MEMBER TINA MCKINNOR | SPECIAL TO CALIFORNIA BLACK MEDIA PARTNERS

Organized retail theft is a significant issue that impacts both consumers and businesses. While it is crucial to address theft and protect businesses from losses, we should also be mindful of safeguarding individuals' constitutional rights, particularly the right to due process.

AB 1990 by Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, also known as the STOP Act, raises concerns about the balance between addressing theft effectively and ensuring civil liberties are upheld. This bill allows law enforcement officers to make warrantless arrests for shoplifting offenses not witnessed by the officer, as long as there is reasonable cause to believe the individual committed the crime. This bill has a dangerous potential for overreach and infringes on civil liberties, particularly the right to due process.

While the stated intention behind the STOP Act is to combat organized retail theft and protect businesses, there are valid concerns that this bill is an overreach and that existing law works, if properly enforced by our partners in law enforcement. A petty theft involving property stolen valued at $950 or less may be charged as a felony or misdemeanor (called a wobbler) if the offender has the following prior convictions: 1) at least on prior petty or theft-related conviction for which a term of imprisonment was served, and 2) a prior conviction for a serious or violent offense, for any registerable sex offense, or for embezzlement from a dependent adult or anyone over the age of 65. A misdemeanor can result in a sentence of up to one year in jail, whereas a felon can mean incarceration for 16 months, two years or three years. Let’s look at shoplifting in California. It occurs when a suspect enters a store, while that establishment is open, intending to steal property worth less than $950. The crime is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in the county jail.

Granting officers the authority to arrest individuals based on reasonable cause, without witnessing the crime firsthand, can lead to negative consequences and possible violations of individual rights. Probable cause is the legal standard by which police authorities have reason to obtain a warrant for the arrest of a suspected criminal and for the courts to issue a search warrant. A grand jury uses the probable cause standard to determine whether or not to issue a criminal indictment. The principle behind the probable cause standard is to limit the power of authorities to conduct unlawful search and seizure of a person or its property, and to promote formal, forensic procedures for gathering lawful evidence for the prosecution of the arrested criminal. Reasonable cause does not require any of this due process and only requires that an officer reasonably believes that a crime has been committed. It is essential to find a middle ground that effectively addresses organized retail theft without compromising the fundamental rights of individuals.

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California’s current laws, including the use of witness statements and surveillance evidence are sufficient for addressing suspected shoplifting and organized retail theft. California Attorney General Rob Bonta recently prosecuted Michelle Mack, a suspected organized smash and grab ringleader who paid twelve women to travel around California and commit over $8 million in retail theft at 21 different stores. AG Bonta used California’s current laws to have the suspect arrested and brought to justice.

The State of California is also making significant investments to address retail theft. Just this past year California invested an additional $267 million to combat organized retail theft. It has been less than a year and our law enforcement partners should have the opportunity to address this recent spike in retail theft crime.

Los Angeles County recently applied for and received a grant for the State of California for $15.6 million dollars to address retail theft enforcement. LA District Attorney George Gascon also recently formed an organized retail task force that partners with LA County Sheriff’s Department, Glendale, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Torrance and Santa Monica Police Departments to integrate their response to retail theft across the region. These collaborative efforts, such as those seen in initiatives like the organized retail task force in LA County, demonstrate the importance of a united approach to tackling theft while maintaining a balance between enforcement and civil liberties.

As we move forward, it is essential for policymakers, law enforcement agencies, businesses and communities to work together in finding solutions that effectively address organized retail theft without encroaching on individual rights. Ongoing evaluation and a commitment to thoughtful consideration will be crucial in navigating this challenge and fostering a safe and prosperous environment for all. Balancing the scales of justice to protect businesses while upholding civil liberties demands a comprehensive and conscientious approach from all stakeholders involved.

I am confident we can find that balance.

About the Author

Assemblymember Tina McKinnor (D-Inglewood) represents the 61st District in Los Angeles County, which includes parts of the South Bay, Inglewood, Hawthorne and Lawndale.

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