A bill seeking to crack down on retail theft crime rings is on its way to the House.
The proposal (HB 1511), filed by Newberry Republican Rep. Chuck Clemons, would implement stiffer penalties against thieves who steal from multiple stores within a short period of time. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill in a 12-5 vote on Monday, sending it to the House floor.
“In the last year, there’s been 60 cases involving more than 250 individuals suspected of organized retail theft or crimes related to organized retail theft,” Clemons said when presenting the bill.
The proposal comes as lawmakers nationwide wrestle with a wave of organized shoplifting rings. The crime — coined “boosting” — involves multiple thieves coordinating to steal multiple items across different retailers. The thieves often return the merchandise later for a store credit or sell the merchandise online. The latter makes it nearly impossible for law enforcement to trace, according to a staff analysis.
“This has to do with boosting,” Clemons said. “Boosting is the basic art of walking into a store and stealing items without being caught. This can be done in a number of ways — pocketing smaller items, simply walking (out) the front door with a cart full of big ticketed merchandise and enough confidence in your step that you can be successful.”
The legislation would subject perpetrators to a third-degree felony if they commit five or more retail thefts within a 30-day period and steal 10 or more items from at least two different locations. Those who steal 20 or more items, meanwhile, may face a second-degree felony.
Clemons said it will also strengthen the ability of State Attorney General Ashley Moody’s recently established task force, the Florida Organized Retail Crime Exchange (FORCE).
“This piece of legislation will help the effectiveness of this task force and give the prosecutors the tools that they need to prosecute these criminals and help strengthen the law,” he said.
Despite overall support for the intent of the bill — to crack down on organized theft rings — some Democrats voted down the bill in hopes of adding more specific language to the legislation. Those who voted against the bill warned of unintended consequences.
“The intent, I believe, is there from a standpoint of dealing with organized crime and entities. But my concern is, I still see a gray area with the unintended consequences of some teenager who is showing some lapse of judgment that goes in the store, that may be lost or makes a poor decision, and they end up with a felony on their record,” said Rep. Ramon Alexander, a Tallahassee Democrat. “I would strongly encourage you to give greater specificity to that and to really outline how it specifically impacts organized crime entities.”
The bill received support from the Attorney General’s Office, as well as the International Council of Shopping Centers, Florida Smart Justice Alliance, Home Depot, Florida Sheriffs Association and the Florida Retail Federation.
“Organized retail crime is a real threat,” Scott Shalley, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation, said in a statement. “The growth of this criminal activity across the country impacts not only our retail members but our customers. Florida shoppers deserve to be in a safe and enjoyable retail environment. We are thankful for the leadership of Representative Clemons and the support of the Florida House on this measure.”
Florida Rising and the Florida ACLU opposed the bill.
“We’re going after these folks who have made it an industry, an industry stealing retail products,” Clemons said. “You’ve seen them on the news, where they just walk out with a big cart full of high-priced items, and they’re not selling those — they’re part of a gang, they put them into a U-Haul trailer and they take it to the next place and sell it on Facebook marketplace.”
A Senate version of the legislation was approved by the chamber last Thursday. Bradenton Republican Sen. Jim Boyd sponsored that proposal.