AUGUSTA — A shoplifter nabbed in Maine with at least $1,000 worth of stolen goods faces a felony theft charge.
But a bill that will receive a public hearing Wednesday would raise the felony theft threshold from $1,000 to $5,000, a proposed change that retailers argue would have the potential to increase retail crime and hurt their bottom lines.
Stealing at least $1,000 worth of goods is a Class C crime, considered a felony and punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, according to the state attorney general’s office. This bill would change that so perpetrators wouldn’t face felony charges unless they stole at least $5,000, with anything below that amount being considered a Class D crime, a misdemeanor. Offenders would face up to 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican from Augusta who introduced the bill, LD 366, feels raising the felony limit on theft will reduce the burden on the criminal justice system.
“$1,000 doesn’t get you as far as it used to,” he said Monday. “Do we really want to make convicted felons out of every person who steals at that level, particularly if they don’t have a prior criminal record?
“No one wants to condone the stealing of anything, but from my perspective we need to reserve felonies for the most serious of crimes,” he said. “It‘s also important because we have limited resources in our prisons and jails, and we really want to reserve those places for the most serious offenders.”
Craig Burgess, general manager of the Marden’s chain of surplus stores, opposes the bill and disagrees with Katz’s premise.
“To say stealing anything less than $5,000 is not serious really concerns me,” Burgess said Tuesday.
Burgess and other retail professionals in Maine believe raising the felony theft threshold would hurt the state’s retailers.
Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine, said such a change would essentially be “a cost of living increase for the criminals.”
Amateur shoplifters who seize an opportunity to swipe a pair of expensive jeans every so often wouldn’t be affected by this bill because they already would fall under the $1,000 threshold, but raising the felony theft line would make Maine retailers a beacon for professional shoplifters, Picard said. It also would mean Maine has the highest felony theft threshold in the country, he said.
“We already know a lot of groups come here from out of state, and they literally steal $999 worth to stay below the felony threshold,” Picard said.
According to data compiled by Picard, Maine’s current threshold of $1,000 is on par with 13 states and higher than 34 states. The state with the highest felony theft threshold is Wisconsin, according to his data. Wisconsin’s criminal code sets felony theft at $2,500.
As for neighboring states, New Hampshire is on par with Maine with felony theft set at $1,000, according to its criminal code. Vermont’s criminal code calls anything above $900 “grand larceny,” which equates with the penalties Maine imposes for felonies. According to Massachusetts law, the felony theft threshold is $250.
Organized retail crime — which is premeditated theft performed by organized groups for the express purpose of selling the stolen goods on the Internet or at flea markets — costs Maine retailers $150 million a year, according to a recent estimate from the Food Marketing Institute. It also costs the state $7 million a year in lost sales tax, the FMI data show.
Attorney General Janet Mills told the Bangor Daily News she opposes the bill.
“Lifting the threshold will only encourage organized retail thieves, give them more leeway to steal an amount of goods just under the felony amount at each of many stores across many jurisdictions, avoiding felony arrests and felony convictions,” Mills wrote in an email Tuesday.
During her previous stint as attorney general, Mills supported an Organized Retail Crime Task Force as part of her office, in which Picard participated. Picard said the task force fell by the wayside when William Schneider became attorney general in 2011.
“It doesn’t matter who you are as a retailer. It’s about the products you’re carrying. If you carry products they can sell, then you’ll be a target for theft,” Picard said Tuesday, adding that popular items for organized retail criminals include Tide, Crest Whitestrips, infant formula, and drugs such as Prilosec. “Anything that has a high dollar value per item that’s relatively small. They look at what they can move through online auctions or flea markets quickly. They’re looking to get 60 to 70 cents per dollar on those items.”
The Kittery Trading Post, which is just minutes from the New Hampshire border, deals with organized retail criminals frequently, according to Joe Simpson, the store’s director of loss prevention, who also participated in the Organized Retail Crime Task Force. And most, about 81 percent, are from out of state, he said Tuesday.
Simpson said a misdemeanor charge and the small corresponding fine are “the cost of doing business for these guys.”
Burgess said out-of-state criminals also have targeted Marden’s stores in southern Maine along the I-95 corridor.
“We have seen situations where they come right up [I-]95 and hit stores in Massachusetts and work right up into southern and central Maine,” Burgess told the BDN.
Joe LaRocca, a retail loss prevention consultant based in California, says raising the felony theft limit from $1,000 to $5,000 is a bit extreme. But he said that, at least anecdotally, there’s no evidence retail crime has increased in states that have raised their felony theft thresholds.
“Where the felony limit has been significantly increased — double or triple its core amount — there’s been no indication that’s increased crime,” LaRocca said. “However, retailers find it difficult to put together multiple booster hits or thefts from stores to get the aggregate amount, especially on people that travel around and hit multiple jurisdictions and courthouses. So the theme is it’s problematic for retail investigators when the amount goes up that much.”
But raising the limit has the potential to aggravate a problem that’s already growing, Simpson said.
“Organized retail crime is definitely getting worse in Maine every year,” he said. “We are seeing fraudulent credit card use, forged travelers checks and shoplifting rings from across the U.S.”
Organized retail crime has larger societal implications, so it’s an issue not only retailers should worry about, Simpson said. For instance, he said he has noticed a troubling trend in drug abusers who use shoplifting to fuel their addiction. Since last September, Simpson’s team at the Kittery Trading Post has apprehended four shoplifters who had needles on their person.
Burgess also has seen a trend in drug abusers turning to premeditated shoplifting. Organized retail crime is a “feeder program” for larger offenses, Burgess said, “so that’s why holding the line on retail crime is so important.”
Sen. Katz, whose first job was working in his father’s jewelry store in Augusta, doesn’t dispute that organized retail crime presents a problem for retailers.
“The merchants association has a legitimate concern with organized retail theft, but there are a number of ways we can try to solve that problem,” he said.
Katz is also open to discussion about the limit increase and acknowledges that perhaps $5,000 is too high. But he wanted to introduce the bill to precipitate the conversation.
“I put a number in somewhat arbitrarily. The exact number will be up to the wisdom of the committees and the full Legislature,” he said. “Maybe $5,000 isn’t the right number. I just don’t think the $1,000 number is.”
The Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety will hold a public hearing on the bill at 10 a.m. Wednesday in Room 436 at the State House in Augusta.