By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Looking for a way to deter what law enforcement officials call organized retail crimes, members of the House of Representatives voted 62-3 Wednesday to approve a bill imposing new and harsher penalties for such offenses.
House Bill 234 is “a very focused response to the disturbing and frightening explosion of shoplifting in our state,” said Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, at the start of the House floor debate.
Shoplifters, who are often armed, “literally attack retail stores” while making off with a substantial number of products and terrorizing shoppers, she said.
Under her bill, Matthews added, shoplifters would no longer face simple misdemeanors but rather could face heightened charges based on how much merchandise they steal.
HB 234 lays out a series of charges — from a petty misdemeanor to a fourth-degree felony — based on the aggregated value of the stolen goods, ranging from $250 to $20,000.
The issue has drawn heightened attention during the session, largely due to its financial implications for retailers and their customers.
Before a multi-agency shoplifting sting operation launched one day in early February, Sgt. Donald Hix of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office said organized retail crimes cost individual stores in the state between $250,000 and $3.2 million a year.
At the time, Hix said thieves probably take the stolen goods to a “fence” — someone who buys stolen goods and resells them — for money or to pay off drug habits.
Meanwhile, consumers could see price hikes and display locks or other anti-theft devices at stores to deter thieves. Many seize mass quantities of even simple household goods, such as razors.
While House Republicans approved of the bill, some said it does not go far enough to bring the hammer down on organized shoplifters who frighten or harm bystanders and store employees.
The bill “doesn’t address the situation where an employee tries to prevent the shoplifter [from stealing] and they get bowled over as the perpetrator leaves the store,” said Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell.
He tried without success to introduce an amendment that would call for harsher penalties in such cases.
Others agreed with Nibert, saying Matthews’ bill should include provisions to protect shoppers.
“It’s getting to the point where people are afraid to go out shopping anymore,” said Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell.
Three Democrats voted against the bill — Reps. Angelica Rubio and Joanne Ferrary of Las Cruces and Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo.