Bill seeks to stanch rise of organized retail crime - Albuquerque Journal

Bill seeks to stanch rise of organized retail crime

Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office deputies listen to instructions from Sgt. Donnie Black during an anti-retail theft operation at Albuquerque’s Coronado Center on Thursday. At least two bills targeting organized retail theft have been filed during this year’s 60-day New Mexico legislative session. (Jon Austria/Journal)

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Lawmakers showed a bipartisan appetite Friday to tackle retail theft in New Mexico, which has emerged as a costly problem for businesses – and a cottage industry of its own.

A bill that would allow prosecutors to go after organized robbery crews by bringing felony charges against defendants that steal $2,500 or more worth of merchandise over a yearlong period passed its first assigned House committee on a 9-0 vote after several business owners pleaded with legislators for more help.

“We can’t operate like this,” said Jessica Carothers, owner of three beauty salons in Albuquerque that were each hit by robberies last year. “People have just had it.”

The legislation, House Bill 234, has brought together an unlikely coalition that includes Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce and top Albuquerque city leaders.

In addition to allowing multiple robberies to be combined under a single criminal charge, the bill would also make it a crime to brandish a weapon or make threats while fleeing from the scene of a theft.

Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, said she worked with business groups and law enforcement agencies to help craft the legislation.

She said the state’s current theft and shoplifting laws were not designed for organized gangs that sometimes conduct “smash and grab” robberies, and have been known to threaten store employees who try to intervene.

Her bill would also emulate a federal law by allowing victims of retail theft to file civil lawsuits against perpetrators to try and recoup their losses.

“We want to protect customers and we want to protect employees,” Matthews said in a recent interview.

Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office deputies prepare to go on patrol following a meeting in regards to a multi-agency anti-theft operation at the Coronado Center in Albuquerque on Thursday. (Jon Austria/ Albuquerque Journal)

Retail theft means big bucks

The Roundhouse debate comes after FBI agents last month found more than $100,000 worth of suspected stolen items – including power tools, chainsaws and large-screen TVs – while executing a search warrant at a storage unit as part of an investigation into an Albuquerque street gang.

An FBI special agent in charge of the operation said the bust showed a link between drug trafficking and a recent spate of organized retail thefts.

In addition, law enforcement officials arrested 16 individuals – seven on felony charges and nine on misdemeanor charges – during a multi-agency retail theft operation conducted this week around the Albuquerque metro area, said Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Donnie Hix.

Three of the arrested individuals were in possession of fentanyl, Hix said, and the value of merchandise stolen from five different stores totaled $3,740.

In addition, a recent statewide study found organized retail theft had led to the loss of more than 5,000 jobs in New Mexico, due to lost profits.

However, there has been pushback against the effort to get tougher on retail crime.

Representatives of the Law Offices of the Public Defender and the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association both testified against the measure Friday, saying the state already has laws on the books dealing with robbery and theft.

In addition, Daniel Williams of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico said stiffer criminal sentences have not been proven to be an effective deterrent.

“We always oppose furthering and deepening the cycles of criminalization and incarceration,” Williams told committee members.

Cost of tougher penalties

The push to crack down on retail theft could come at a cost, as an analysis of the bill projected the state would eventually have to pay an additional $740,000 per year to cover the increased prison incarceration costs under the proposal.

But some lawmakers suggested the increased prison costs would be a small price to pay to address a growing problem.

“We’ve all seen what’s going on – people are no longer afraid to be caught,” said Rep. Alan Martinez, R-Bernalillo, who said some New Mexicans are wary of opening small businesses due to theft-related issues.

“People need to be afraid to commit crimes again,” he added.

Meanwhile, the legislation approved Friday is one of two bills dealing with organized retail crime that have been proposed at the Roundhouse.

The other measure, House Bill 55, stalled Friday in the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee on a tie vote, after some legislators expressed concern that it did not sufficiently define some key terms.

But Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, urged the sponsor of that bill, Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, a retired police officer, to work together with Matthews on her legislation. She also expressed frustration that the two lawmakers had not worked together on their respective bills.

Trei Gilpin, an attorney for Alto US, a firm that helps several large New Mexico retailers with crime issues by working with law enforcement agencies, said many businesses have tried to take steps to make retail theft more difficult, including putting some merchandise under lock and key.

But he said the state’s current shoplifting laws put the onus on law enforcement officers to prosecute misdemeanor cases – often leading to cases being dismissed.

As for retail theft crews, he said their actions are a far cry from petty shoplifting. “There’s a reason it’s called organized retail rime,” Gilpin told the Journal. “It’s being used to fund other illicit activity.”

Journal staff writer Rick Nathanson contributed to this report.

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