Lawmakers approve retail theft crackdown despite objections to felony penalties
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retail theft
One bill sponsor says retail theft is headed to Florida like a Cat. 5 hurricane.

The Legislature has passed a bill to crack down on organized retail theft, a move House Democrats say would penalize low-income Floridians.

The bill (SB 1534), which passed the House 80-36 on Tuesday, stiffens penalties against thieves who steal multiple items from multiple stores in a short period.

Bradenton Republican Sen. Jim Boyd and Newberry Republican Rep. Chuck Clemons filed the legislation following a rise of organized retail theft across the country last year. A study from the National Retail Federation shows 69% of retailers have seen increased organized crime within the last year.

In December, Florida garnered national news when more than $1 million in goods were stolen from a small business in Palm Beach.

“I’m telling you, it’s coming. It’s like a Cat. 5 hurricane, and you’ve got Jim whatever-his-name-is. He is out there on the shore, and the wind’s blowing. It’s going to come to Florida,” Clemons told House members.

Under the measure, theft of 10 or more items from at least two different locations is deemed a third-degree felony if committed within 30 days. Meanwhile, the theft of 20 or more items would be a second-degree felony.

Additionally, stealing more than $750 of merchandise from one or more stores within 30 days would be a third-degree felony, and stealing $3,000 or more would constitute a second-degree felony.

Businesses would need to tabulate their losses within those 30 days.

Although the Senate passed the proposal unanimously last month, most House Democrats opposed the bill. Jacksonville Democratic Rep. Tracie Davis said it would “only penalize poor people,” and St. Petersburg Democratic Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby noted state estimates show it would increase the prison population.

“If we’re concerned about this, let’s create diversionary programs. Or, if we’re concerned about that … let’s create programs that deal with systemic poverty. Let’s create programs that maybe lift people out of poverty,” Rayner-Goolsby said.

While Clemons said the bill is intended to curb organized crime, the bill would also apply to independent actors. Miami Gardens Democratic Rep. Christopher Benjamin said prosecutors don’t always do the right thing to ensure there is no disparity in the law’s application.

“Be careful members because your teenagers could end up in this position,” added Gainesville Democratic Rep. Yvonne Hinson.

Members on both sides of the bill reference that the bill would apply to people stealing candy bars and other low-dollar items. Critics argued the penalties are too steep for small items, while proponents argued stealing is bad.

Islamorada Republican Rep. Jim Mooney told members he comes from a background in retail and was once punched by a shoplifter. Shoplifting rings are nothing new, and not cracking down on them would send a message that stealing is OK, he continued.

“Instead of stealing a candy bar, sandwich or Coca-Cola, why don’t you walk in the retailer and say, ‘Can I sweep your front porch? … I’m hungry,'” Mooney said. “That works because most of us small retailers have hearts. We’re not box stores. We’re not monsters. We are individuals who actually believe in mankind.”

However, Clemons attempted to re-center the debate on more serious theft, like stealing chainsaws and other high-dollar items.

“This bill is not about Snickers bars. It’s not about pencils. It’s not about Coca-Cola or doughnuts. It’s not even about 100 Grand bars,” Clemons said. “This is about trying to stem the tide on organized retail theft.”

Four Democrats joined Republicans on the 80-36 vote: Boynton Beach Rep. Joe Casello, Brandon Rep. Andrew Learned, Lake Clarke Shores Rep. David Silvers and Tallahassee Rep. Allison Tant.

Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office is also supporting the bill.

“(Thank you), Sen. (Jim Boyd) and Rep. (Chuck Clemons), for your hard work on this important bill, which will help us stop organized retail theft and build a (stronger, safer Florida),” Moody tweeted after the passage.

“We applaud Attorney General Moody, Sen. Boyd and Rep. Clemmons for moving this important public safety legislation forward,” said USA-IT spokesman and former director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Matt Albence. “States across the country are taking positive steps, equipping police and prosecutors with these new tools. Through cooperative, cross-sector efforts, we can all work together to stop Organized Retail Crime that is hurting our economy, endangering our citizens and providing a revenue stream for criminal organizations.”

The bill next heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk. If approved, the increased penalties would take effect in October.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.


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