Alabama Senate passes bill creating crime of ‘retail theft’

Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, listens to a budget presentation from the Alabama Community College System on March 7. The presentation came on the first day of the Alabama Legislatures 2023 regular session. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

The Alabama Senate approved a bill that creates harsher punishments for people convicted of stealing from retailers.

Senate Bill 206, sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, creates a new crime of "retail theft" and makes some thefts felonies punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Chambliss said on the floor of the Senate on Thursday the state does not have a section dealing with shoplifting.

"Those crimes are prosecuted under the theft statute, and it doesn't exactly fit," he said. "This would create a section dealing specifically with shoplifting."

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A similar bill stalled in the House amid concern from House Judiciary Committee members that the punishments were draconian and could send mothers to prison for taking baby formula.

The Senate approved its bill Thursday.

Like the House legislation, the Senate bill defines organized retail theft as people knowingly hiding merchandise in their clothes or body; taking the items out of the retail shop; altering the price of an item without the retailer knowing about it; or a person not scanning the merchandise's barcode at the self-checkout register.

It also includes sabotaging the security device on the item and transferring an item from one container to another.

The bill creates a new set of offenses. First-degree retail theft, when a person steals a firearm from a store; steals more than $2,500 worth of items or takes items worth more than $1,000 from a store over a six-month period; is a felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

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Retail theft in the second degree, involving theft of an item between $500 and $2,500, would be a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Retail theft in the third degree, covering theft of items under $500, is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $6,000 fine.

A fourth or subsequent conviction for retail theft would be a felony, punishable up to 10 years of prison.

The bill also creates a crime of organized retail theft, involving two or more people conspiring to commit retail theft or shoplifting, or receiving stolen property. The bill would make that a felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The range of punishments drew some criticism.

"If you shop at Walmart, and you go past the register -- that is theft," said Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, the minority leader. "Even in Walmart, they got the eyeglasses past the register."

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He also said people take home shopping carts because they use them to carry the groceries home.

The Senate amended the bill to remove specific references to shopping carts.

The bill moves to the Alabama House of Representatives.