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States Toughen 'Smash And Grab' Theft Laws, Critics Question Data

Before Virginia lawmakers passed a tough new law against organized retail crime earlier this year, Bradley Haywood, a public defender in Arlington, Va., challenged the rationale.

The idea that retailers in the state had lost billions to organized theft was a myth manufactured by retailers, Haywood argued.

The outspoken lawyer has fresh ammunition for his effort to repeal the law: The National Retail Federation this month retracted its April assertion that nearly half of the $94.5 billion in merchandise that went missing in 2021 was stolen by retail rings. The true percentage was only a small fraction of that amount, about 5%, reports Stateline.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says that Virginia is one of at least 14 states that enacted retail theft laws over the past two years in response to reports of highly organized theft rings invading stores and fleeing, collectively, with billions of dollars in merchandise. Social media posts showing thieves storming retail outlets helped fuel the crackdown.

Nine states passed new laws this year, either toughening punishment or creating task forces to study the threats posed by organized theft rings. At least one state — Texas — enacted two laws, one creating a task force and the other allowing potential thieves to avoid prosecution if they agree to an education course designed to deter them from breaking the law.

In addition to Texas and Virginia, Alabama, Indiana, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Oregon enacted retail theft laws this year. California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana and North Carolina did so last year.

Retailers, prosecutors and police have pushed state and federal lawmakers to crack down on thieves who, they say, have become increasingly sophisticated and violent. Some large retailers have shuttered stores with the largest losses. Many shoppers have had to get used to asking clerks to open locked displays of merchandise vulnerable to theft. Some retailers have directed employees not to pursue shoplifters, out of fear for their safety.

Despite questions over the extent of the losses, law enforcement officers and prosecutors insist the threat is greater than ever, citing a recent series of busts against sometimes violent shoplifting rings amid the Christmas shopping season.

Barry Matson of the Alabama District Attorneys Association said, "We’ve had major national retailers close their doors in Alabama because theft was so high.”

Matson disparaged what he called “pro-criminal” advocates, including critics in the media and liberal-leaning social policy groups, who are pushing back against law enforcement’s portrayal of a national retail theft problem. “I think there’s these groups that are more sympathetic to criminal defendants than they are [to] victims,” he said.

In Virginia, Haywood remains skeptical. He says he will fight to repeal his state’s law next year. “The notion that ... the mafia is going to get rich selling air freshener and deodorant … that just seems pretty ridiculous to me,” he said.


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