Senate panel advances Torres bill combating organized retail theft

The state Senate Law and Justice Committee today voted to advance Sen. Nikki Torres’ legislation to further define the crime of organized retail to theft, a step the central Washington lawmaker says is crucial to protecting retailers, consumers and black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities, which are disproportionally affected by the growing epidemic of retail theft.

“Organized retail theft is a multi-million-dollar problem and a huge loss for business owners,” said Torres, R-Pasco. “Retail theft drives up the costs of goods, causing businesses to either raise prices or close down locations altogether. This creates a devastating one-two punch that hits low-income and BIPOC communities hardest, creating a serious issue of equity and access to goods for those communities.

“This bill is a critical part of a multistep process the Legislature has undertaken to combat retail theft and protect public safety. It will, hopefully, be both an incentive to avoid committing these crimes and an important tool in the prosecution of those criminals who want to prey on our small-business owners and the communities they serve.”

Under Senate Bill 5160, a person would be guilty of second-degree organized retail theft for stealing property with a cumulative value of at least $750 with two or more accomplices who enter the store within five minutes of one another.

“Thank you, Senator Torres, for bringing this legislation forward,” Mark Johnson, senior vice president for policy with the Washington Retail Association, told the committee during a hearing held earlier this week. “This is an important tool in the fight against organized retail crime.”

According to Johnson, Washington ranks second in the nation in theft per capita, with more than $2.7 billion in goods stolen from retailers every year. This leads to increased costs to consumers and approximately $250 million in lost tax revenue to state and local governments.

Katie Beeson with the Washington Food Industry Association pointed out that independent grocers are also impacted by retail theft.

“I know you don’t think of independent grocers when you think of organized retail theft,” said Beeson. “But we are actually experiencing it at high volumes just like some of the bigger box stores. Ours just happen to be in the form of smaller items – think supplements, baby formula, and laundry detergent.”

Larry Shannon with the Washington State Association for Justice, which had opposed a similar measure (SB 5781) last session, testified that the current bill is “clean” and no longer contains problematic language that prevented his organization from supporting previous versions of the bill.

“This bill addresses a very significant problem, and we commend it to you,” he told the committee.

SB 5160 now moves to the Ways and Means Committee for its consideration.