Organized Retail Theft to Become Class 3 Felony in Virginia Amid Surge in Shoplifting

Virginia state lawmakers on Feb. 23 approved legislation that will make organized retail theft a Class 3 felony and could leave those convicted of the crime eligible for prison sentences of up to 20 years.

The bill, HB 1885, was introduced by Republican delegate Kathy Byron, and will make it a Class 3 felony for anyone to conspire or act in concert with one or more people to steal retail merchandise from one or more establishments that has a value exceeding $5,000 within a three-month period, with the intent to sell the stolen goods for profit.

It would also make it a Class 3 felony for any person to receive or possess any stolen merchandise that was obtained through theft from one or more stores while knowing or having reasonable grounds to believe the property was unlawfully obtained.

The original bill contained a $1,000 threshold, but was lowered following criticism from some lawmakers who feared it could be used against petty thieves.

Lawmakers who support the legislation have said that criminals stealing the merchandise are then selling it online through platforms such as Amazon, eBay, and other online marketplaces.

“They’re not stealing so they can go home and feed their family. This is theft for some kind of financial gain,” Byron told the Associated Press.

The new legislation comes after Virginia attorney general Jason Miyares examined the issue of rising organized retail theft, holding meetings with lawmakers, representatives of major retailers, trade groups, and law enforcement officials.

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Jason Miyares, who later won the election for Virginia attorney general and was sworn into office, speaks to a rally. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Billions’ Worth of Merchandise Stolen in Virginia

That probe resulted in a report by Miyares and the work group that found approximately $1.3 billion of merchandise is stolen in Virginia annually, costing the state more than $80 million in lost tax revenue.

Miyares and the other officials subsequently agreed that legislation could address the growing problem.

“It particularly hits our small-business owners and retail shop owners,” Miyares told FOX 5. “Many times they are the first to get there in the morning and the last to leave at night, and they’ve had such a cost of doing business that has skyrocketed simply by retail theft that some of them have had to close their doors. So it was a message we were hearing loud and clear from retailers.”

The new legislation will not take effect right away and still needs to be signed by Governor Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, who has reportedly supported the bill.

However, some lawmakers have expressed concerns that the legislation could have negative repercussions for individuals who steal as a means of surviving, such as low-income individuals, the homeless, and people struggling with drug addiction.

Brad Haywood, a public defender who founded Justice Forward Virginia, a group that advocates for criminal justice reform, told the Associated Press that he believes claims that retail theft has surged to new highs in recent years have been exaggerated.

“The premise behind the bill is a manufactured controversy,” Haywood said.

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A gate is used to lock items at a pharmacy and convenience store in New York City, on Oct. 26, 2021. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Retail Theft on the Rise

The approval of the latest legislation in Virginia comes amid a rise in shoplifting across the United States, prompting stores like Walmart and Target to warn that this could lead to higher prices in stores and even closures.

Nationwide, retail theft amounted to an inventory loss of $94.5 billion in 2021 when taken as a percentage of total retail sales in 2021, up from $90.8 billion in 2020, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2022 National Retail Security Survey (pdf).

A string of states, including California, Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina, have rolled out tougher laws on organized retail theft in recent years.

Meanwhile, the rise in shoplifting crimes in New York City has prompted one of the city’s largest shopping districts to hire K-9 units to sniff out thieves.

The 34th Street Partnership, a not-for-profit, private management company that overseas business improvements in the city, including in Macy’s Herald Square, Penn Station, and Madison Square Garden, hired the dogs for a CVS store at Eighth Avenue and West 34th Street earlier this month.

The dogs, which do not actively engage in pursuits and instead serve as deterrents to criminals, have already prevented at least 25 thefts over a five-day period between Feb. 15–19 and deterred dozens more.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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