6 June 2022
Raleigh, N.C. — State Senate lawmakers voted Monday to approve increased penalties for organized retail theft rings and the criminals who run them. State House lawmakers approved a similar measure last week by a unanimous vote.
The Senate approved the measure 43-0. It now goes to the House, where it is expected to pass.
Senate Bill 766 would define organized retail theft as a crime under state law. It would increase the penalties for organizers, including jail time for ringleaders of the biggest organizations.
Retail theft rings are a growing problem in North Carolina, said Andy Ellen, president of the N.C. Retail Merchants Association, the main group behind the measure.
“We had a $400,000 bust of product in Cabarrus County and a $240,000 bust of product in Charlotte, with power tools, infant formula, Tide pods, over-the-counter medications, all tied to organized retail crime,” Ellen said. “These are things that you can easily get rid of on the secondary market, whether that be online or in a pawn shop and or a flea market, and things that you can turn over for a profit.”
Ellen says most rings operate through highly organized and orchestrated shoplifting by teams of “boosters.”
“Some of them have up to … 100 people or so that will go into stores with a shopping list of what they want them to steal,” Ellen said. “They will spread out across I-85, I-40 or even in our rural areas, and pinpoint and target certain goods and certain retailers that they want to steal from.”
The theft rings also sometimes engage in smash-and-grab robberies, like the one in Cary last December that yielded tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of designer purses.
The bill also requires high-volume online sellers to disclose more information to the marketplace sites they’re using, like eBay, Facebook and Amazon. Ellen was quick to add that most sellers on such platforms are legitimate. But the bill would require sellers turning over high volumes of retail goods to verify their identity.
Ellen says that, too often, repeat offenders don’t get jail time because they keep the amount of any single theft below the level required to make it a felony. The bill allows those charged with organized retail theft to be charged for the cumulative amount they’ve stolen over a 90-day period.
“Retail shoplifting costs us, as a nation, about $69 million” a year, Ellen said. “That’s about $500 per family that we’re all paying because of these stolen goods.”
According to a recent report by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, these retail theft rings are also commonly involved in other types of organized crime, including drug and human trafficking.
“Recent investigations have also identified organized retail crime schemes exploiting undocumented migrants forced to steal goods to pay back “coyotes” who smuggle them across international borders,” according to a news release from the federal agency.
The ACLU was the only group to speak against the bill in committee last week, citing concerns about increasing incarceration.
“Senate Bill 766 provides law enforcement stronger recourse to pursue these criminals and shows business owners that these crime rings will not be tolerated,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, said in a statement after the bill passed the Senate.
Medical marijuana heads to House
The state Senate also voted to approve a bill that would legalize medical marijuana for patients with certain conditions in North Carolina.
The Senate passed the measure Monday with a vote of 36-7 after having given initial approval to the proposed legislation last week. The bill now goes to the House, where it’s likely to face more opposition and could linger until later in the year.
Legislative leaders have said they want to wrap up the short session by July 4. House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters last week that he doesn’t think House Republicans will be willing to take up the measure before then. “I don’t see an appetite to take that up in the shorter session,” said Moore, R-Cleveland.
Senate Bill 711 would set up a medical marijuana supply system that would be tightly regulated by the state. Ten suppliers would be licensed to grow, process and sell the drug at a total of 80 dispensaries statewide. Patients with a short list of debilitating conditions, including cancer, ALS, and those in hospice care, could buy it with a prescription from their primary doctor, if that doctor has taken additional courses and received certification to prescribe the drug.
A WRAL News online survey of registered voters in the state found strong bipartisan support for the legalization of medical marijuana. Seventy-two percent of respondents said marijuana for medical use should be legalized, including 64% of Republicans, 75% of Democrats and 78% of unaffiliated voters. The poll was conducted in April.