Lawmakers Consider Tougher Penalties for Retail Organized Crime

Over Black Friday weekend last November, a group of Twin Cities thieves stole thousands of dollars worth of merchandise from several Best Buys stores and a Dick’s Sporting Goods store.

Within days, an anonymous tipster flagged a team of detectives from Maplewood, Burnsville and Blaine for clues on social media for the brazen burglaries. They later found a Facebook post allegedly written by one of the thieves claiming to be “the first booster certified with an LLC”, a reference to a limited liability company.

“Someone put us on a publicity post that [the suspect] was looking for more people to come and work for him,” Blaine Police Captain Mark Boerboom said.

As investigators gathered more evidence, they claimed the thefts were part of an organized retail criminal enterprise, a growing problem for retailers and public safety officers.

Since the holidays, executives from some of the nation’s largest retail chains, including Twin Cities-based Target Corp. and Best Buy Co., have spoken out more about organized crime in retail. National retailers as well as local outlets are pushing for new laws such as the creation of safeguards that could help prevent the mass sale of stolen goods online and a greater distinction between how someone is punished for minor theft compared to involvement in an elaborate multi-jurisdictional criminal network.

“These costs are just not for retailers,” Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association, told a state Senate hearing in March. Organized crime in retail “impacts consumer prices, of course, and probably more importantly, it impacts consumer and worker safety.”

About 70% of retailers said they saw an increase in organized criminal activity in retail over the past year, according to a 2021 report from the National Retail Federation. Retailers said factors such as COVID-19, policing, changes to sentencing guidelines and the growth of online markets were to blame. They also said that criminal groups were more aggressive and violent than in the past.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, has drafted a bill in the Senate that would define organized retail theft as when a person steals a good and then resells it or intends to resell it or earns money. money by returning the item to the store. It offers up to 15 years in prison depending on the value of the stolen property and other factors, including the suspect’s possible criminal history.

“I hope this bill provides prosecutors and law enforcement with an updated tool to help combat theft at retailers of all sizes across Minnesota,” Limmer said in a statement.

The Minnesota Organized Retail Crime Association — a nonprofit group of law enforcement, retail loss prevention experts and prosecutors — also supports the bill.

“Since the onset of COVID, the impact [of organized retail crime] has grown significantly within the industry,” Cody Johnson, co-chair of the association, said in an email.

More than 30 states have laws defining organized crime in the retail industry. Illinois and other states are discussing such legislation.

In Minnesota, Limmer’s bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee in late March.

Through his experience as an assistant Hennepin County attorney, Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, who drafted a companion bill in the House, said he’s seen the retail theft cases organized becoming more sophisticated as more criminals move stolen property across state lines and in some cases commit identity theft to facilitate their schemes.

Stephenson said that while the legislation would increase penalties for retail theft, he predicted bipartisan support as the changes would punish the most serious offenders.

“You shouldn’t treat someone who engages in organized crime the same as a shoplifter. That’s another thing,” he said in an interview.

Organized retail crime has become a hot topic this past holiday season, with several retailers reporting a wave of burglaries in Chicago, San Francisco and other cities.

In the Twin Cities, 10 people have been charged in Anoka County and a handful of charges in Ramsey County over thefts that authorities say totaled more than $26,000 in merchandise stolen from Best. Buys in Maplewood, Burnsville and Blaine. A Dick’s Sporting Goods in Richfield was also hit. One of the cases was dismissed because a suspect was misidentified.

In a letter to congressional leaders in December, the chief executives of 20 retailers — including Best Buy’s Corie Barry and Target’s Brian Cornell — advocated for a federal bill called the INFORM Consumers Act. The bill would increase the transparency of online markets so that criminals cannot hide behind false trading information so easily.

Target and Best Buy are also taking precautions themselves to guard against organized retail crime. In November, Barry said Best Buy was locking down certain products and hiring on-site security guards to fight crime. Target has organized crime investigative teams across the country as well as its Minneapolis headquarters.

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