State House speaker behind bill supported by county attorney and retailers to stiffen penalties for retail theft

Leaders in Arizona, including Speaker of the House Ben Toma and Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell, and across the country are pursuing policies to crack down on retail theft, which the National Retail Federation says contributed to more than $110 billion in losses in 2022.

Toma (R-Peoria) and Mitchell at a press conference Tuesday called for passage of Toma’s HB 2435, a bill that would stiffen penalties for retail theft.

Retail thieves, according to law enforcement and retailers, are becoming more organized and more brazen.

Organized retail theft is often part of a larger fencing operation, where stolen goods are sold off for cash, where in typical shoplifting, long the scourge of the retail sector, stolen goods are used for personal use.

Los Angeles leads the nation in retail theft, a distinction Mitchell says her office won’t let come to Maricopa County.

“As this county’s prosecutor, I have said, ‘If you come here from these other states, such as California, where (retail theft) is tolerated, plan to stay,’” Mitchell said, joining Arizona Retailers Association President Michelle Ahlmer and Toma in support of Toma’s legislation. “Speaker Toma’s bill has made it possible that they understand that Arizona – specifically Maricopa County – will not tolerate this type of offense that is driving retailers to close stores, to hurt the communities that the stores are located in, and driving people out of business. I really appreciate Speaker Toma’s sponsorship of this bill. It will make a difference.”

Toma agreed.

“California may tolerate lawlessness, but my bill, HB 2435, will tell criminals that they’ll pay a heavy price for stealing,” he said on X.

Strategies in other states and jurisdictions

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recommends three ways to combat retail crime:

  • Coordinate resources among business and law enforcement: Vital information regarding criminal activities and the necessary tools to combat them are frequently not shared among businesses, law enforcement agencies, and policymakers. In order to efficiently address widespread crime, local businesses must collaborate and exchange information regarding criminal incidents to identify patterns and implement effective strategies.
  • Aggregate offenses to punish repeat offenders: Thieves engage in a pattern of stealing slightly below the felony threshold in each theft, frequently targeting the same stores across different jurisdictions and repeatedly committing thefts to avoid felony charges. San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan and others recommend amending state laws to establish a separate offense for the repetitive stealing of specific amounts within designated timeframes. 

Toma’s bill says a person who is convicted of a third or subsequent organized retail theft 

offense is to be sentenced as a category two repetitive offender. Organized retail theft in 

Arizona is currently classified as a class 4 felony, which punishes first-time offenders 

with 1 to 3.75 years in prison or up to four years of probation.

  • Prosecute aggressively to combat lawlessness: Prosecutors face unique challenges when dealing with crimes that span multiple jurisdictions, but efforts are being made to address this issue. The Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce backed a bill in that state to establish a new office of  Deputy Attorney General for Organized Retail Crime Theft. Additionally, states should authorize attorney generals and special prosecutors to aid in intricate, multi-jurisdictional cases, thereby conveying a robust statewide stance against retail crime.

Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes oversees an Organized Retail Theft Task Force, which last year announced investigations into gift card cloning, and the theft of more than 3,200 cans of baby formula, more than 1200 cloned Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. 
“Those participating in organized retail theft are on notice that in Arizona, their organizations will be disrupted, they will be apprehended, and they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Mayes said. “Organized retail theft and fraud harms all of us, from the victims themselves to regular Arizonans facing increased prices that result from theft.”

Photo courtesy Rep. Toma via X.

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