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Organized retail theft is not shoplifting

On Behalf of | Jul 17, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Some people here in Washington and throughout the country have taken shoplifting to a whole new level. Thanks in part to the organizing power of social media, large numbers of people have descended on everything from home improvement superstores to high-end retail shopping districts, making off with thousands of dollars in goods in relatively quick but damaging and sometimes violent sprees.

Lawmakers and prosecutors have taken notice. Some states have enacted or amended retail theft laws to increase penalties. Some, like Washington, have set up special task forces to crack down on these crimes.

This spring, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced an Organized Retail Crime Unit, which will operate from the AG’s office. The unit, which was granted authority by the state legislature, includes prosecutors and investigators who help with investigations into specific cases and take on prosecutions referred to it by county prosecutors.

How does state law define “organized retail theft?”

Organized retail theft is an offense recognized under Washington law. As the AG explains, “These are not petty thefts. These are multi-jurisdictional, organized crime rings that endanger the safety of employees and customers, damage our economy, and drive up costs for all Washingtonians.” He says the unit is not going after individual shoplifters or those who are driven to theft by poverty.

Washington already had an “organized retail theft” statute in place. It defines the offense as a “theft of property with a value of at least seven hundred fifty dollars from a mercantile establishment with an accomplice” or possession of that property. It’s important to note that the law applies when multiple thefts of merchandise occur within a period of up to 180 days, even if they’re in different counties.

Further, under the law, a retailer “whose property is alleged to have been stolen may request that the charge be aggregated with other thefts of property about which the mercantile establishment or establishments is aware.”

Organized retail theft is undoubtedly detrimental to retail establishments and communities as a whole. However, that certainly doesn’t mean that everyone arrested and charged with the offense is guilty.

Because these thefts by definition involve more than one person and sometimes multiple incidents, it’s certainly possible that someone who had little or no involvement could end up facing serious charges. It’s crucial to take those charges seriously and seek independent legal guidance to protect your rights and your future.