Organized Retail Crime in Pennsylvania

Originally published by Pennsylvania Municipal Police Officers Education & Training Commission, Volume 37, Issue 3 September 2014.  Abridged.

Does your jurisdiction have a Shopping Center? Retail theft arrests? On the surface, retail crime can be regarded as petty — yet often enough offenders are linked to activities on the radar of professional law enforcement (regional and interstate organized crime, gang activity, and narcotics to name a few). The FBI has consistently linked revenue of Organized Retail Theft (ORT) groups to terrorist organizations since September 11, 2001.

On December 23, 2013, Pennsylvania again strengthened its retail theft law by passing Senate Bill 731 (Act 131) into law. The retail theft section of the law, being a cooperative effort led by Sen. John Rafferty (R-Berks/Chester/ Montgomery) and Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) provides a stricter penalty for burglary, robbery, and theft by specifically amending the grading for the offense of retail theft. Act 131 comes on the heels of the 2010 passage of HB 1720 (Act 33), which added §3929.3. Organized Retail Theft to the crimes code, a felony offense for individuals guilty of managing an ORT “Enterprise”.

The FBI estimates merchants lose in excess of $30 billion each year due to this activity, the revenues of which have been linked to terrorist organizations. Theft activity also poses a significant health risk to consumers who unknowingly purchase stolen infant formula, medication, and healthcare items which could have altered expiration dates or may have been improperly stored.

The good news is that agencies in the Commonwealth are now prosecuting offenders under §3929.3. The passage of Act 131 also reduces the felony threshold for retail theft from $2,000 to $1,000.Doing so brings Pennsylvania more in line with other states in the U.S. with lower felony level thresholds.

The spirit of the law is to discourage organized crime from viewing Pennsylvania as a target-rich environment as they have in years past. The average shoplifter requires a substantial haul to reach this level and the summary and misdemeanor thresholds remain $150 for first-time offenders. Another section of this act provides language that now constitutes the use of an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program as a prior offense, stating “…the court shall include a conviction, acceptance of Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition or other form of preliminary disposition, occurring before the sentencing on the present violation, for an offense under this section…”

These two recently updated laws have given Pennsylvania law enforcement additional resources to combat retail crime. “Whether or not you signed up for the first time offender program, it is still a prior offense and this law will help clarify for the patrolman and district magistrate where sometimes the law is interpreted differently”, said Detective Gary Hammer of the Colonial Regional Police Department, who has a number of retail locations in his agencies’ jurisdiction.

It is clear that Organized Retail Crime (ORC) has links to gang violence, drug activity, and even terrorism. This puts our children and our communities at risk. Hopefully these laws will provide law enforcement officers with the correct tools needed to prosecute offenders to the fullest.” With up-to-date retail theft statutes on the books, Pennsylvania retailers and police agencies have the ability to continue combating and mitigating the persistent issue of retail crime, which adversely affects citizens and government across the Commonwealth.