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California Assemblymember Wants to Use Fear of Arrest to Stop Retail Theft

A shop lifting sign featuring a pair of handcuffs.
Source: Katangais/Wikimedia

Wendy Carrillo, an Assemblymember for the state of California, has a new proposal for putting a stop to shoplifting crimes, and fear of arrest is an essential ingredient.

“Right now, there’s no fear, right? It’s like we can steal, we can commit these petty misdemeanor crimes, but it’s cite and release and there’s no record,” Carrillo said, explaining why the current laws on the books haven’t been effective.

Carrillo is one of the main sponsors of California Assembly Bill 1990, a new bill that would give police broader authority to make arrests in misdemeanor shoplifting incidents. Police officers could arrest a person for shoplifting as long as they have probable cause suggesting an incident occurred. This means an arrest wouldn’t require a warrant or for the officer to be present where the theft occurred.

The bill, called the Secured Transactions and Organized Theft Prevention, or “STOP” Act wants to deter shoplifters by threatening them with a higher likelihood of being arrested for even low-level shoplifting crimes.

Carrillo sees the provisions the bill would enact as a return to tradition. “This is just going back to traditionally what we used to have, which was book-and-arrest, so you’ll have a record,” Carrillo said.

There are several ideas being floated in the state legislature on how to deal with the problem of retail theft in the wake of headlines describing stores in California that are leaving or who have closed due to crime concerns.

Places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other big urban centers have seen a steady rise in shoplifting and retail crime in recent years. This uptick in crimes has been hammering businesses hard, with some losing their insurance policies as property crimes and retail theft become more commonplace.

In January, California Governor Gavin Newsom met with community leaders in Oakland for a discussion about their concerns regarding how crime is affecting businesses and the community.

“Insurance was brought up as an opportunity to ask the governor to help with organizations and businesses that are losing their insurance because that is a really financial impact on small businesses that we need to address,” said Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Leslie.

Other ideas in the California legislature proposed to deal with the problem include aggregating misdemeanors into felony charges, lowering the $950 felony threshold for shoplifting crimes, or increasing penalties in some other way. 

Despite all these competing ideas, Carrillo’s bill has managed to garner bipartisan support with two Democratic co-sponsors and one Republican Assemblymember co-sponsor.

However, AB 1990 is not without its critics. Assemblymember Tina McKinnor has been strongly opposed to the bill, saying it would be “bad for black and brown folks.”

Opponents like McKinnor think that the bill proposal would result in a wave of incarceration that would disproportionately affect black and brown residents. McKinnor thinks that the laws don’t need to be changed but just properly enforced.

“The laws on the books are effective if our law enforcement partners would enforce them,” McKinnor said.

Carrillo has responded to this criticism during a news conference, saying her intent behind the bill was not to send more people to jail, but to make use of the threat of arrest to deter people from stealing in the first place.

Currently, the bill is waiting for a hearing and has been referred to the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee.

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