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Manhattan stores’ legal maneuver makes minor theft charges serious crimes punishable by prison time

2019-09-09

Minor petty larceny charges often become felonies punishable with prison time under a policy retailers employ against shoplifters, according to a new report from Manhattan public defenders.

A month-long investigation conducted by New York County Defender Services data analysts found that 39% of its clients charged with burglary in the third degree — a felony — had actually taken items worth less than $1,000, a crime typically prosecuted as misdemeanor petty larceny.

Thefts of cat litter, soap, scarves and red velvet cake, which under the petty larceny law are punishable by no more than a year in jail, became felonies punishable by up to four years in prison because the suspects were presented with a trespass notice when stores caught them shoplifting on prior occasions.

The public defenders’ analysts reviewed 120 cases where a person’s top charge was third-degree burglary. Of those cases, 47 would have likely been prosecuted on lesser charges had it not been for the trespass notice.

The reported thefts took place at 14 different stores: Bloomingdale’s, Burlington Coat Factory, Marshall’s, Rite Aid, Sephora, Fine Fare, Macy’s, Century 21, DSW, Duane Reade, the Apple Store, Walgreens, the Gap and Lord & Taylor. Several of the stores, including Duane Reade, had reported shoplifting incidents at several Manhattan locations.

Outside Manhattan, petty larceny cases rarely become third-degree burglary charges, said Christopher Boyle, director of data research and policy at New York County Defender Services.

“This has been going on for more than 20 years,” he said. “You don’t see this in the other boroughs, but you see it here."

Of the 47 accused shoplifters whose charges were boosted to felonies, 18 — or 38% — were homeless, the data shows. Thirty-five — 74% — had bail set at between $1,000 and $30,000 while they awaited trial.

Twenty of the 29 cases for which the defenders have sentencing data — 69% — resulted in jail or prison time.

“This isn’t about store loss,” Boyle said, noting that retailers typically get their property returned.

“They want to send a message that they don’t want these people in their stores," he said. "If you charge these people, they will likely be put away and you won’t see them back in your store.”