By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
News video footage of shoplifters aiming handguns at store security guards during crime sprees told the story.
Lawmakers who watched the footage, part of a KRQE newscast from last year, then acted to pass a bill aimed at stemming such shoplifting efforts.
On Friday the members of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee unanimously approved House Bill 234, which would create new crimes of robbery for shoplifters using guns and allow stricter penalties for different shoplifting crimes committed within a 90-day period, among other measures.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, also creates the crime of organized retail crime, defined as thieves working together to steal $2,500 or more worth of goods, which would constitute a second-degree felony and lead to a prison term of up to nine years.
Matthews preferred to let others speak for her regarding the need to support the legislation.
Shoplifters, often working in teams in a concerted effort to “smash and grab” their way to stolen bounty they can easily escape with, are “attacking retail stores and making off with substantial product,” said Sean Sullivan of the state Attorney General’s Office, who testified virtually in support of the legislation.
He said the crime exacts a “human toll” on employees who are threatened with violence in the course of their work day.
Jessica Carothers, who runs three small businesses in Albuquerque, said businesses still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and dealing with employee shortages and other challenges are “really on the edge, guys.”
She said the crimes “have a personal cost, an emotional toll as well.”
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers said it is past time to crack down on these crimes, which have been generating more and more media and law enforcement attention around the country.
Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said it is not just a problem for urban communities.
“The crime is coming to us and I don’t want us to be sitting ducks,” he said.
Many who testified for the bill, and at least one lawmaker on the committee, told personal stories of friends or relatives who work in retail who have witnessed brazen shoplifting efforts and feel powerless to do anything about it.
The committee’s action came just a day after deputies with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, working in tandem with other law enforcement agencies, launched a one-day sting operation aimed at shoplifters in Albuquerque.
The committee members voted 5-5 on tabling a related bill, House Bill 55, sponsored by Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, and four other House Republicans.
Rehm’s bill would give prosecutors the ability to add up all the shoplifting crimes conducted by an individual or team of organized criminals over the span of a calendar year and charge them with more serious crimes all the way up to a second-degree felony charge.
But some lawmakers expressed concern about what they considered unclear language in the bill, and others, including Matthews, said it did not target the individual shoplifter who is not part of an organized ring of thieves. Five Democrats voted to table Rehm’s bill, while two Democrats joined three Republicans on the committee to oppose this.
Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, who chairs the committee, asked Rehm to work on tightening up the bill’s language and then return to the committee for another shot at passing HB 55.
Gallegos chided both Matthews and Rehm for not working together to create a bill on what is clearly a bipartisan issue. Matthews said they did reach out to one another “off and on and it didn’t work out.”