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Organized retail thieves on Capitol radar

Legislature looking to impose harsher penalties for orchestrated thefts involving two or more suspects aiming to resell stolen goods.

ST PAUL, Minn. — This may be the year lawmakers pass a bill cracking down on organized retail theft, putting harsher penalties into the state law for orchestrated crimes that rise above simple shoplifting.

The legislation is aimed at groups of two or more thieves who go into a store with the intent of stealing items for resale, and may already have buyers lined up for the item through clandestine stolen property fencing rings.

"There’s a different type of enterprise out there, a retail theft enterprise," Bruce Nustad of the Minnesota Retailers Association told Capitol reporters Monday at a press conference to draw attention to the bill.

The most recent incident occurred Friday night at a Target store in the city of North Saint Paul. Several young men entered the store while it was still open to the public and used a sledgehammer to break display cases to steal electronics.

Two of the have been arrested, but others were still at large as of Monday evening.

"This bill is really just a great effort to separate petty theft -- theft that might be done by a family in desperate times -- from true criminal activity," Nustad explained.

"It all comes down to what is the intent of that crime."

Nustad's organization and others have been working for the past five years to make organized retail theft its own category of crime with more serious consequences for those convicted. He said 34 states have already enacted similar laws.

In the House, the bill's being carried by Rep. Zack Stephenson, a Coon Rapids Democrat who works as a prosecutor outside of the legislative session.

"I’ve seen this happen and start to gain momentum and evolve over the last few years," Rep. Stephenson remarked.

"I’ve seen more and more cases where there are elements of sophistication. It's very different from someone who's just taking a crime of opportunity in a retail store, or a one-off case. When you have that enterprise level of sophistication."

The bill sets a range of charges and prison time, depending on the value of the stolen goods and the offender's prior record.  A maximum of 15 years in prison is being proposed for someone who takes more than $5,000 worth of goods as part of an organized retail theft operation.

The lead author in the Senate is Sen. Ron Latz, a St. Louis Park Democrat who works as a criminal defense lawyer away from his Capitol duties.

"The stuff that gets taken gets moved very quickly. The channels are in operation," Sen. Latz explained.

"The ones where it’s organized at some level, people are collaborating. They’ve got a business, really, operating to do this."

The large smash-and-grab events at big box retailers captured on surveillance video make for a lot of headlines and clicks on social media sites. But most of the victims of organized retail theft are small businesses who are ripped by via credit card fraud orchestrated in advance through sophisticated schemes.

"The true victims right now are actually the small retailers who actually cannot afford those losses," Nustad said, citing the case of Walter Dillon, who owned KKG Kickz sneaker shop in Little Canada.

Dillon closed the store after several break-ins by groups of hooded men who acted quickly and clearly knew what they were looking for during the store invasion.  Dillon testified in favor of the bill at a hearing in February, recalling that one of the burglaries took place while his wife was in labor with their baby boy.

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