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Business/Money

June 17, 2014

Storeowners complain new shoplifting law in Indiana too lax

$750 set as the line between a felony and a misdemeanor

INDIANAPOLIS — Retailers are relieved that lawmakers have fixed an error in a new criminal law that would have made it tough to arrest shoplifters. Now they want a harsher penalty restored for thieves.

They contend the real problem with the new criminal code that goes into effect July 1 is a provision that drops theft from a felony to misdemeanor if the stolen goods are valued at less than $750.

“We’ve got a huge problem with that,” said Grant Monahan, head of the Indiana Retail Council, which represents thousands of store owners statewide.

On Tuesday, the General Assembly met in an unusual session to make “technical corrections” to the 400-plus page bill that overhauled crime and punishment in Indiana. While toughening penalties for violent crimes, the new law reduces punishments for some theft and drug possession crimes by making them into misdemeanors that are rarely punished with prison time.

In passing the law during a hectic session, lawmakers inadvertently left out language that would allow police to arrest suspected shoplifters caught by store personnel while stealing something worth less than $750. Most misdemeanors require a police officer to witness the crime to make the arrest.

Legislators fixed that Tuesday and also restored the penalty for the crime of child seduction. In revising the massive bill earlier this year, lawmakers inadvertently reduced the sentence for someone convicted of intercourse with a child. During Tuesday’s session, lawmakers also clarified the amount of drugs that lead to controlled substance charges.  

Fixing the shoplifting language revealed a deep divide among some lawmakers.

For years, Indiana has allowed prosecutors to charge shoplifters with a class D felony, no matter the value of the stolen item. During debate over the new criminal code, supporters of changing that said heavy-handed prosecutors were putting people in prison for stealing a candy bar, and that prisoners were crowded with low-level thieves and drug addicts.

State Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, a former deputy prosecutor, said the criminal code needed to be changed, but he vehemently opposed the new limits on felony theft. Head wants to see the monetary limits removed when legislators return in January for the 2015 session, returning discretion to judges and prosecutors to reduce theft charges depending on the circumstances.

“When you put a threshold of value on a stolen item, you create problems we didn’t have before,” Head said. “If I steal your purse and it has $741 in it, that’s a misdemeanor. But if I steal your purse and it has $751 in it, that’s a felony. My intent and behavior was exactly the same, but because of the value, in one case I’m a felon and in the other I’m not.”

Retailers argue that theft is a serious and costly crime. Monahan says Indiana store owners suffer a $100 million hit from shoplifters every year. That includes the cost of stolen goods as well as security measures and personnel put in place to prevent shoplifting.

“Ninety percent of retailers have been impacted by theft,” Monahan said.

But attempts to eliminate the monetary limits are already finding resistance.

Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, a former deputy prosecutor who co-authored the new criminal code, said almost every other state in the nation uses monetary limits to differentiate felony from misdemeanor theft.

McMillin noted a study of prison inmates that showed thousands of people behind bars on low-level theft charges, many of whom were driven to crime to feed drug habits. He argues that putting those people into community-based treatment programs is a better use of criminal justice dollars.

McMillin predicted there will an “onslaught of efforts” to roll back changes made by the new criminal code. He plans to fight them, as do some in the House leadership. Earlier this year, they directed lawmakers to first vet any proposed changes this summer with the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee. McMillin sits on that committee.

“I can tell you, I will not be interested in hearing bills that are a piecemeal attack on the comprehensive work done in [House Enrolled Act] 1006,” he said. “We’ve put together good stuff and we plan on sticking with it.”

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Reach her at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden

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