Tennessee high court OKs tougher shoplifting charges

Robert Houk • Feb 21, 2020 at 8:30 AM

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that repeat misdemeanor shoplifters can be charged with a felony burglary.

Ken Baldwin, the attorney general of the 1st Judicial District, says it is “a really big decision" for local prosecutors. He said it is also good news to large retailers who are often the victims of habitual shoplifting.

“Walmart has to take those thefts into their cost of doing business,” he said.

Baldwin said the ruling applies to cases where defendants with four or more previous misdemeanor convictions for shoplifting have been banned from a specific store. He said these defendants are often addicted to drugs, and return to the same retailers to steal merchandise that they will later attempt to exchange for refunds or gift cards that will be used to purchase drugs.

“We are talking about a significant number of defendants,” Baldwin said.

He also said shoplifters are “more violent these days,” and are known to fight with theft prevention officers and carry weapons.

“That used to be the exception,” Baldwin said.

The state’s Supreme Court released a ruling this week in “State of Tennessee v. Abbie Leann Welch,” a case that sought to appeal the defendant’s Class D felony conviction. The defendant had previously been banned from the Walmart in Knoxville where she had taken merchandise from the store in October 2015 and attempted to return the items — with help from a  friend — for a gift card.

“We conclude the language of the statute criminalizing burglary is clear and unambiguous on its face,” the court wrote in its decision. “We further conclude that the statute is not unconstitutionally vague as applied and that nothing in the statute precludes its application to the scenario presented herein.”

Baldwin said the ruling eliminates any questions as to the validity of a burglary charge being placed in such cases.  He said prosecutors have previously interpreted that statute in much the same way.

Instead of charging repeat offenders who are accused of shoplifting items valued less than $500 with a misdemeanor, Baldwin said prosecutors can charge defendants with a Class D felony burglary. He said this puts habitual offenders into the court system where they will be subject to supervised drug treatment and counseling programs.

“Ideally, by treating them as felons, we can help them get the treatment they need,” Baldwin said. “We are not simply putting people behind bars. It usually takes three to four convictions before they are sent to prison.”

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