The Cop Column
November, 2004
Sgt. Rick Hord
Public Information Officer

Shoplifting... To Prosecute or Not?

The Holiday season is the busiest time of the year for shoppers, merchants... and thieves.

Statistically, retail theft calls for the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office are not much higher in November and December than in the other ten months of the year. In the first ten months of this year, we averaged about 37 shoplifting calls per month. In 2003, Deputies were called to 74 retail theft incidents... again, an average of 37 per month... but statistics can be misleading. The sad fact is, most retail thefts don't get reported. Most don't even get discovered until long after the fact. No doubt that's especially true when the store are busiest.

Policies vary from one merchant to another. Some stores actively detect, apprehend, and prosecute every thief they can. Others catch few shoplifters, prosecute only if the merchandise is neither returned nor paid for.

The decision is entirely up to the business, but, for the record, the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office does not recommend "no prosecute" policies. Here's why:

*It's sending the wrong message. Getting caught should be a possible consequence of doing wrong.

*Shoplifters are stealing from every other customer. Losses from retail theft add an estimated seven percent to the price of everything you and I purchase. Eliminating retail theft would be like eliminating the sales tax.

*Let the courts give second chances. Some shopkeepers believe everyone deserves a second chance. The problem is, how do you know you're not the tenth merchant to give this thief a "second" chance?

*Shoplifting is a crime. Not prosecuting turns it into a game. If you don't get caught, play again. If you do get caught, play again anyway.

Florida law takes retail theft seriously. You need not take anything to be a thief. "Altering or removing a label, universal product code, or price tag; transferring merchandise from one container to another..." counts as retail theft under Florida Law. Almost any intentional act that denies the merchant the "use, benefit, or full retail value" of the property can be considered theft. That's why someone who reached into a jar and took one piece of candy was prosecuted for the retail value of the contents of the entire jar. The merchant uses a clean scoop, never a bare, unwashed hand, to reach in the jar. Stealing one piece made the entire large jar unusable.

Theft of property worth $300 or more is a felony; less than that amount is usually a misdemeanor. For shoplifters working together, the combined total value can be counted against each suspect. If ten teenagers, working together, each swipe two $15 CD's... you guessed it... each can be charged with a felony. The same concept applies to an individual shoplifter on a spree; the combined total from different shops over a 48 hour period may be added together.

Businesses desiring more information about shoplifting... including advice on catching and apprehending thieves... may contact Kathleen Larney, Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office Crime Prevention Specialist, at (850) 609-2005.