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From the Big Box to the Big House: Walmart Helps Tennessee Prosecutors Felonize Shoplifting

by Matt Clarke

Across the country, retailers’ associations are lobbying legislatures to stiffen the punishment for retail theft, allegedly to prevent “organized retail crime,” a fuzzy term often used to describe repeated shoplifting. In Tennessee, Walmart and local prosecutors have taken advantage of a broadly worded burglary statute to felonize what would otherwise be misdemeanor retail theft.

The associations of retailers are pushing for similar language in California and several other states.

Curtis Lawson ran afoul of the Tennessee statute when he “returned” $39.57 worth of products he had not purchased, using a receipt for a purchase he made earlier at a Knoxville, Walmart.

In Tennessee, shoplifting under $1,000 is a misdemeanor, but Lawson’s charges were upgraded to felony burglary after it was discovered that a different Walmart location had sent him a “Notification of Restriction from Property’’ after he was caught shoplifting there four years earlier. The notification “evicted” Lawson, informing him he was “no longer allowed on property owned by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. or in any area subject to Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s control,” including “all retail locations or subsidiaries” forever.

Tennessee law defines burglary as “unlawfully and knowingly entering a building without the consent of the owner and committing theft.” Because of the notification, Lawson’s retail theft fit the definition. Suddenly, he was facing up to 12 years in prison.

The level of charging is largely left up to local prosecutors in Tennessee. After a judge in another county dismissed the felony charges as inappropriate in a case similar to Lawson’s, Knox County District Attorney Charme Allen vowed to keep up charging shoplifters.

Although little information is available about “organized retail theft” or shoplifting, in a 2014 study, the National Retail Federation said shoplifting accounted for about $44 billion in losses. That explains why retailers, even those in Tennessee, are lobbying for ever-stiffer penalties for shoplifting.

The Tennessee Retail Association is working on increasing penalties for retail theft, gift card fraud and return fraud. However, this powerful alignment of business interests may simply end up turning poor people and those, like Lawson, supporting a drug addiction through petty theft, into felons who will have an even harder time finding success in our society as well as serving long prison terms for relatively minor offenses. 


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