Organized retail crime target of new law/reporting system
Hobbs business owner Joe Imbriale is fed up. In just two years he’s lost at least $20,000 in merchandise to theft and despite loads of video surveillance and even tracking down the suspects’ names on his own, he can’t get a single case prosecuted.
“You have no idea how bad it is,” Imbriale, the owner of Rig Outfitters said. “It is getting out of control. Not only retail theft, but crime in general.”
Imbriale is incensed as what he sees as political finger pointing that leaves career shoplifters on the streets, racking in tens of thousands of dollars of stolen goods each year from businesses large and small across Hobbs.
“I have 22 police reports, $20,000 in theft and not a one has ever been prosecuted,” he said. “And that is just what I know about. Every single one of these I post on Facebook and find out who they are. I will have the name and who they are, and give it to the police. They have all the evidence and what I get is ‘Oh yeah, we know that person.’ It is the same people committing the crimes. But when it gets to the DA’s (district attorney’s) office, it is always some BS reason why they can’t prosecute.”
One aspect of the problem is state law considered each incident of shoplifting separately and most fell within the misdemeanor crimes category — resulting in the cases being heard at municipal court and the fines and jail times judges were allowed to impose being minimal.
“The police and sheriff’s department people on the streets are fighting every day but their hands are tied,” Imbriale said. “They want these guys off the streets. That is what is frustrating to them. They live in this community too and every single one of them are good officers, but they can’t do anything.”
“How can you stop crime when the criminals know the laws better than anyone else,” Imbriale added. “Trespass charges don’t work. They come right back in. They know nothing is going to happen.”
A new law
That changed earlier this year with a new organized retail crime law passed by the state legislature that went into effect in June that allows prosecutors to link multiple shoplifting crimes together and prosecute the cases to a higher degree — often resulting in felony charges.
“The statute allows us to not only charge the people who steal the items, but the people that hire them to steal the items, who never enter the store, never touch the merchandise,” said Fifth Judicial District Attorney Dianna Luce. “The statute is finally giving law enforcement the tools to add up the amounts within a 90-day period and charge these people with a higher level of crime.”
Organized retail crime is a major issue nationally. The National Retail Federation (NRF) — the world’s largest retail trade association — recently released its 2023 Retail Security Survey. The report contains insights from 177 retail brands, which accounted for $1.6 trillion of annual retail sales in 2022 and represent more than 97,000 retail locations across the U.S.
Overall, retailers that participated in the survey reported inventory loss averaged 1.6 percent in 2022, a sum totaling $112.1 billion in losses.
In New Mexico, a 2021 report from the Retail Industry Leaders Association clocked the total estimated stolen sales statewide at $819.8 million.
Locally, the criminals have become indeed brazen, Luce said, adding she’s heard of incidents where criminals strolled into a local grocery and right out the front door with baskets loaded with merchandise. She said Hobbs ranks 10th in the state for total value of merchandise stolen.
“This is organized crime and it is in New Mexico and it is viable,” she said.
Imbriale said many think shoplifting is a “victimless” crime but theft affects the whole community.
“Inflation is bad enough on top of having to cover losses,” he said. “People say, ‘Just write it off on insurance as a loss.’ There is no such thing as insurance for retail theft. They think it is just a little bit, it isn’t going to hurt them, but it does when you get hit 100 times a year.”
Reported retail crime numbers may be exceedingly low Luce said, as many retailers have stopped reporting retail crime because of the lack of legal outcomes.
“I think retail has felt like nothing was happening,” Luce said. “We are seeing where reporting is down. We are hoping businesses will start reporting again, because if they will report, I think we can find it is a small percentage of individuals committing these crimes.”
Imbriale agreed. Small retailers have just stopped reporting the crimes and large, corporate retailers simply write off the losses and move on, but the amount of product stolen is reaching astronomical numbers, he said.
“When I came here 14 years ago I met the store manager at Walmart. He said retail theft for the Hobbs store was $3 million a year,” Imbriale said. “JC Penney and Burke’s they don’t do anything, they just take it as a loss,” he said. “I have cameras here and I caught footage of guys coming out of Burke’s with a cartload of purses. They didn’t want the video to do anything.”
According to a KOB news article from Sept. 1, a serial shoplifter in Albuquerque was recently charged under the new state law. Christina Ephrim was charged in more than 50 retail theft crimes to the tune of more than $60,000 under the new law.
Ephrim had stolen that exorbitant sum mostly in laundry detergent, like Tide Pods, to sell to someone who resold them for profit.
Since the new law went into effect, 23 people have been charged under it statewide.
Making the cases
Luce, along with local law enforcement, met with local retailers, including Imbriale, on Nove. 14 to present information on the new law and urge retailers to join Auror — a retail crime-reporting database aimed at linking repeat offenders to their crimes to build bigger cases against them like in the Ephrim case.
Luce said her office has been visiting with retailers throughout the fifth judicial district to encourage them to enroll in the multi-state reporting program.
“We just want them to know that is there and know that our office is trying to join everyone together,” she said.
She said the district attorney’s office cannot guarantee outcomes, but the law, combined with the database, is adding teeth to the enforcement of retail crimes.
“Perhaps we can have some cases that move through the system and have good results,” she said. “We want people to go shop and be safe and businesses can make a living. It’s hard to keep employees if they are afraid and customers don’t want to come in and shop.”
The DA’s office has assigned a full-time prosecutor to focus on organized retail crime and work with retailers who join the system.
“The important point to make the ability for the information to flow fluidly between the DA’s office, law enforcement and retailers,” Luce said. “That is paramount to making these cases come out successful.”
Hobbs Police Chief August Fons was unable to attend the Nov. 14 meeting, but sent several officers. He said the reporting system has lots of potential for building cases.
“As soon as possible we are going to do an in-service training to get every commissioned officer trained and able to access that system,” he said, adding the system is relatively new and his department learned of it at the meeting. “It is going to be used pretty seriously as an investigative tool.”
He said one thing that will help is the dedicated DA and that all retail crime cases will now be filed in magistrate court instead of municipal court.
“All shoplifting will be filed in magistrate court. The DA’s person will get every report we file,” he said. “We will forward any information we get from the system along with the shoplifting report. I think this will make things much more efficient and I think it will help retailers here substantially.”
Fons agreed retail crime has become a major problem not just in Hobbs, but across the nation, and the new statute turns the consequences for serial shoplifters from a slap on the wrist to serious.
“We still have shoplifting where someone is stealing, say spark plugs for their car, but the problem is where these people have turned this literally into a business,” he said. “In my opinion it (the statute) is long overdue. If the state had not have addressed this we would start seeing lots of businesses going out of business. I think as we start getting these convictions with severe consequences, that will be a deterrent.”
Imbriale said he is hopeful the program will result in prosecutions that will remove the repeat offenders he sees in his store from the streets, but he is still waiting to be impressed.
“What is going is a good thing,” he said about the database, “but are they actually going to prosecute these people?”
He said a recent pair of shoplifters took $800 in clothes from his store and were caught on camera. He said he turned the footage over to law enforcement and one of the suspects already had 20 previous arrests, but, despite video evidence, the case was not prosecuted.
“We had them on seven different angles stealing this stuff, but they wouldn’t prosecute because the employee wouldn’t testify, but she was underage and her mother wouldn’t let her,” he said. “Footage isn’t good enough? They just do not care as much as we do.”
He said that, if nothing else, the system will serve as a “look out” notice to retailers who join it about what individuals to watch out for.
“When I post things on Facebook, it is all about making people aware of it,” he said. “There was this guy who shot someone and he came into my store the next week. My staff recognized him and called the police and sure enough he had a gun on him.”
The policy among most businesses is to tell employees to record what information they can, but not try to stop the criminals for safety reasons.
Imbriale said the days of that are coming to an end because small retailers are simply too fed up to allow it to keep happening.
“We are not going to take this any more,” he said. “I got into it with three kids the other day, chased them out of the store. That is what it is coming to.”
Law enforcement around the nation is seeing violent crime often goes hand-in-hand with retail theft and some thieves simply use violence to ensure their victims don’t get in the way of their stealing.
Imbriale said he posted signs on his business that employees may have concealed weapons and even paid for five of his staff to take concealed firearms training after he had two employees assaulted by thieves when caught in the act.
“That is how bad it is getting,” Imbriale said. “If you don’t prosecute these people, the crimes will get worse and worse until someone holds them accountable and crime is just stupid right now.”