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Oregon legislation targets organized retail theft that cost businesses millions of dollars a year

Werth Media
Oregon lawmakers are considering legislation that would help law enforcement investigate and prosecute organized retail theft rings. Albertsons and Safeway stores have lost millions in the past decade from retail theft in Multnomah County alone.

Oregon retailers face sophisticated theft rings that steal goods – electronics, jewelry and other merchandise – and sell the items for illicit gains.

A crime ring that repeatedly targets the same business can cost it tens of thousands of dollars in losses – or more. Thieves also pose a public safety risk by running through stores or breaking into locked glass cabinets, for example. For large retailers in the Portland area, the losses are millions each year.

To combat the problem, Oregon lawmakers are considering legislation that would give law enforcement and prosecutors more money and tools to investigate and prosecute organized retail theft.

Senate bills 318 and 340, would provide tougher penalties and money for state investigators and grants for communities. The bills were discussed on Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate Bill 340 would:

  • Allow prosecutors to try a defendant for all the charges against them in one county when they are charged with multiple thefts against the same retailer in different counties. 
  • Add the crime of organized retail theft to the state’s existing law for people who commit repeated property crimes. This would allow a 24- to 36-month prison sentence instead of up to 11 months.
  • Prosecutors would have more flexibility to charge someone with organized retail theft after they commit multiple thefts for several months. Under the existing law, a defendant can be charged with organized retail theft – a felony – when they steal more than $5,000 of merchandise on multiple occasions within a 90-day period. The bill would expand that window to thefts within a 180–day period, making it easier to prosecute people who commit multiple thefts for months on end.

Senate Bill 318 would give $5 million to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission for a new grant program that would award cities and counties money for efforts to fight organized retail theft. The bill would also pay for an analyst and at least two criminal investigators in the Oregon Department of Justice to coordinate with local law enforcement and look for statewide trends.

Retailers, prosecutors and law enforcement officials back the bills, saying more tools and flexibility are needed as criminal enterprises operate for extended lengths and cross county borders.

“Customers see the impact of organized retail crime through necessary items not being available on store shelves, increased costs for those items when they are in stock and the use of extensive security features to protect these items from theft,” Detective Michael Zacher of the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, told lawmakers.

Assigned to the agency’s property crimes unit, Zacher said thefts have forced some retailers to either relocate their stores or shut down.

Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton said the proposals would make it easier to prosecute criminal organizations involved in retail theft.

“I am keenly aware of the challenges Oregon faces from increased organized retail crime,” Barton said in a statement. “Retail theft impacts all members of our community, including both large and small businesses and employees and customers alike.”

For retailers, the bills would help a problem that can cost millions of dollars each year. Safeway and Albertsons have experienced $15.5 million in losses in eight years in Multnomah County alone, company officials said in submitted testimony.

As a result, organized retail crime “carries significant financial harm for businesses, drives costs higher for consumers, and creates unsafe working conditions for employees,” Jill McGinnis, director of communications, public affairs and government relations for the two large grocery store chains, said in written testimony.

The Oregon Organized Retail Crime Task Force, a group of retailers, law enforcement officials and prosecutors that met for a six-month period seeking solutions for retail theft, recommended the bills.

To move forward, the bills will need a committee vote by April 4.

The Oregon Capital Chronicle is a professional, nonprofit news organization. We are an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Capital Chronicle retains full editorial independence, meaning decisions about news and coverage are made by Oregonians for Oregonians.

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Ben Botkin has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon.