Palmetto State Magnet for ‘Professional’ Shoplifters, Retailers’ Group Says

April 9, 2013

Investigative Reports

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05867b83d3e509ec32f3703b884b2469Update: The House Judiciary Committee approved H. 3602, which targets “professional” shoplifters, on Tuesday.

South Carolina encourages “professional” shoplifters and organized crime because it has the weakest laws in the South, according to a retailers’ group pushing two state bills aimed at combating the problem.

In the Palmetto State, shoplifting doesn’t rise to a felony unless the theft  involves more than $2,000 – a much higher threshold compared to other Southern states, the Raleigh, N.C.-based South Carolina Retail Association initially informed The Nerve last week.

H. 3602, sponsored by Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter, and an identical bill, S. 471, sponsored by Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, wouldn’t lower the $2,000 threshold. But in adding the category of “professional” shoplifters, who typically sell or “fence” their stolen goods, to current law, the legislation would allow, among other things:

  • Multiple shoplifting acts, defined in the bills as “theft of retail property,” to be counted as a single felony if the amounts stolen totaled more than $2,000 over a 90-day period;
  • Multiple shoplifting acts in different counties to be combined into one count and prosecuted in any of the counties in which the thefts occurred; and
  • Defendants convicted of felony retail theft to face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Under current shoplifting law, the maximum punishment is five years in prison and a $1,000 fine if the stolen amount is more than $2,000 but less than $10,000, and a maximum 10-year sentence if the stolen amount is at least $10,000.

“We’re not interested in the one-time shoplifter,” Jack West, a lobbyist with the South Carolina Retail Association told The Nerve Monday. “We’re interested in the professional criminal.”

The most recent data from the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute in 2009 showed that Organized Retail Crime (ORC) cost South Carolina $25.1 million in sales taxes that year. The Congressional Research Service estimated in a report in 2012 that the annual nationwide loss for ORC is between $15 billion and $37 billion.

“Current South Carolina laws do not adequately address ORC due to the manner in which these crimes are committed, and changes are necessary to protect the people of South Carolina through both deterrence and punishment,” the state retail association said in an email to The Nerve.

Other components of Weeks’ and Martin’s bills include:

  • Adding a felony to the law for those who commit larceny against a retailer by affixing a product code to fraudulently obtain goods less than the sales price. The punishment would be a fine of not more than $5,000, prison time of not more than five years, or both;
  • Making it illegal to obtain refunds from merchants using fake driver’s licenses or other phony identification. The maximum penalty would be 10 years in prison if the defendant had been previously convicted of two or more such offenses, regardless of the value involved; and
  • Amending the law to allow theft victims to have unpaid restitution orders in summary courts converted to civil judgments, which could result in liens against the defendants.

“It’s really an attempt to update the law with how they’re doing business,” Martin, whose bill has 18 co-sponsors, said when contacted by The Nerve.

“This is the kind of bill that can enjoy broad support,” Martin, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, continued, adding he would push to get the bill passed before the end of the regular legislative session in early June.

Weeks did not respond to multiple requests from The Nerve late last week and Monday seeking comment. His bill, which has 50 co-sponsors, is before the House Judiciary Committee this afternoon.

West said the South Carolina Retail Association took the issue to solicitors, who crafted a bill that they believe they could enforce. Solicitors reported that shoplifters know about the $2,000 limit and know how stay below it, he said.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported that popular stolen items include baby formula, over-the-counter medicines, high-priced vacuum cleaners, other electronics, clothing, beauty items and doors.

West said thieves can buy a device online that disables the security code of a product, and that it is common see stolen items with their price tags still on being sold at flea markets.

“It’s a big multi-state ring business,” he said.

Martin said the cost of retail theft goes beyond the lost sales taxes and higher prices for consumers. Law enforcement must spend time investigating and prosecuting these cases, which costs taxpayers, he said.

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or curt@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.