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Measure to enhance penalties for ‘organized retail theft’ moves in the House

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Rep. Chuck Clemmons

Rep. Chuck Clemmons

Over the opposition of criminal justice reform advocates, Florida lawmakers are poised to enhance penalties for “organized retail theft.”

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee voted 15-3 on February 8 to approve HB 1511 by Rep. Chuck Clemmons, R-Jonesville.

“This is becoming a larger and larger problem not only in Florida but across the nation,” Clemmons told the panel.

Clemmons said Attorney General Ashley Moody and the Office of Statewide Prosecutor created a taskforce in December that has generated nearly 60 cases involving 250 individuals who are suspected of organized retail theft or related crimes.

The measure would create a new “organized retail theft” criminal category that would subject violators to a third-degree felony if they commit five or more retail thefts within a 30-day period and steal 10 or more items from at least two different locations.

Perpetrators who steal 20 or more items could face second-degree felony charges.

Clemmons said he added a new term to his vocabulary while researching the legislation.

“Boosting is the basic act of walking in a store and stealing items without getting caught,” he said. “This can be done in a number of ways, from pocketing smaller items, to simply walking out the front door with a cartful of big-ticket merchandise and enough confidence that you will not be questioned or stopped by the store employee.”

The measure has the support of the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Retail Federation, and the National Federation of Independent Business.

“There is a very serious issue out there with organized retail theft,” said NFIB’s Tim Nungesser. “There is an issue with the online sale of these items.”

Faith-based groups, the ACLU, and other criminal justice reform advocates are opposed.

Rep. Michael Grieco, D-North Bay Village, called the proposal unnecessary.

Grieco noted that the committee vowed last year to reverse a decade’s long trend of imposing harsher sentences. Second-degree felonies are “usually reserved for pretty violent crimes,” Grieco said.

“I think we’re going in the wrong direction if we’re going to be increasing penalties for non-violent offenses,” Grieco said. “There are plenty of tools in the toolbox.”

Clemmons insisted the measure is narrowly targeted.

“This is not about little Johnny, ‘he’s a good boy, he just made a mistake,’” Clemmons said. “This is about organized crime.”

HB 1511 faces one more hearing in Judiciary before reaching the House floor.

A companion, SB 1534 by Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, cleared Criminal Justice 9-0 on January 25 and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal

and Civil Justice 7-0 on February 1.

After clearing Senate Appropriations 18-2 on February 9, it is headed to the Senate Floor.

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