Back in 2017, California enacted new theft laws that ensured those who shoplifted could only be charged with a misdemeanor or infraction, whereas prosecutors often filed felony burglary charges against shoplifters prior to that, arguing that they entered the store with the intent to steal. Most first-time offenders could even enter a diversion program, allowing them to avoid having a conviction appear on their record at all.
Many advocates for criminal justice reform praised the effort as it meant that many low-level, first-time offenders were being sent to prison for simply trying to steal food or goods they needed to survive. Unfortunately, organized theft rings took advantage of the reformed laws, encouraging members to steal up to $950 worth of goods and then returning or reselling them for profit. A new bill, AB 331 was just enacted with the hope of curtailing this loophole.
What Does AB 331 Do?
The successfully passed bill adds a new theft law to the California state penal code, specifically, 490.4 (PC). This new bill states that when one person acts “in concert with one or more persons to steal merchandise… with the intent to sell or return the merchandise” or acts “in concert with 2 or more persons to receive, purchase, or possess merchandise knowing or believing it to have been stolen” or acts as an agent “as part of an organized plan to commit theft.”
In plain English, this means that if someone participates in an organized retail theft crime syndicate, whether as a fence, a thief, a recruiter, a reseller or in any other role, they are guilty of the crime.
Penalties for Violating California’s Organized Retail Theft Laws
All of these charges depend on the value of property stolen. When less than $950 worth of merchandise was stolen, the crimes are a misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year in jail. This is notable because it’s more than twice the maximum sentence for standard shoplifting charges. That being said, those charged with misdemeanor-level crimes can still qualify for diversion programs that will allow them to avoid having the charges end up on their criminal records.
If the aggregate value of the stolen merchandise (meaning everything that was taken over the course of the organized theft ring’s operation) is over $950, then the charges can be either a misdemeanor or a felony at the discretion of the prosecutor. When the charges are filed as a felony, the crime is punishable by up to three years in prison and there is no option to enter a diversion program.
Judges also may order those convicted of these crimes to avoid certain types of retail establishments as part of their probation, which can be a notably difficult restriction to follow given how often most people need to buy goods from retail shops.
The good news is that prosecutors have a lot of discretion while charging people for crimes, so they may choose to file charges against only some members of the an organized theft ring and file no charges or file standard shoplifting charges against other members. Prosecutors may also choose to file offenses where more than $950 worth of property was taken as a misdemeanor rather than a felony, which will drastically reduce the length of the maximum sentence for the crime. This is where it pays to work with a top defense lawyer to help minimize the charges or penalties you may face for this crime.
If you have been accused of any type of theft crime, please call Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.