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In recent times, several videos showing several people shamelessly looting bags of merchandise from retail stores in the US have gone viral on social media. Such instances of organized retail theft often lead to huge financial losses for businesses, and this has pushed lawmakers to take a stronger stance against such crimes.

This is especially the case in Virginia, where state lawmakers have approved legislation against organized retail theft. As per the legislation, organized retail theft will now be classified as a felony which is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 20 years. This comes after a Virginia state report found that merchandise valued at around $1.3 billion is stolen in this manner every year in the state.

The legislation, which has gained support from the governor, makes it a Class 3 felony for any person to conspire with or act in association with other people to steal retail merchandise valued over $5,000 within a 90-day period, with the intention of reselling the stolen items at a profit. As per supporters of the legislation, such offenders often sell stolen goods via online marketplaces like eBay, Amazon, etc.

Republican Del. Kathy Byron, who was the lead sponsor of the House bill, put forward her opinion saying, “They’re not stealing so they can go home and feed their family. This is theft for some kind of financial gain.”

Denver theft criminal defense lawyers agree that organized retail theft is a major issue not only in Virginia but throughout the US. And currently, at least twenty-four states have legislations in place to address this issue, as per statistics provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

This issue was studied at length by the office of Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares last year. Miyares’ office held several meetings with lawmakers, trade groups, representatives of major retailers, and law enforcement in 2022 before coming to a consensus in favor of passing new legislation.

Other than Byron’s bill, another separate bill on this issue was also sponsored by Republican Sen. Richard Stuart. However, both bills met with resistance from a few Democrats and criminal justice advocates. The opposition claimed that the legislation might trap people who are forced to steal for survival, such as drug addicts, the homeless, and people with low incomes.

The bill originally mentioned the theft of goods exceeding a total value of $1,000 would be punishable under the law. However, this was later amended to appease critics who were worried about the law being used against petty thieves.

However, not all are convinced yet. Brad Haywood, who is a public defender and the founder of Justice Forward Virginia, which is known for advocating criminal justice reform, is of the opinion that the issue of retail theft has been highly exaggerated in recent years. In his words, “The premise behind the bill is a manufactured controversy.”

Democratic state Sen. Joe Morrissey also opposed the legislation saying that it was overly punitive and might be used against certain segments of the population who aren’t its primary target. He said, “It creates a Class 3 felony — (punishable by) up to 20 years — for a person who commits multiple thefts, but a lot of these people who are committing multiple thefts are drug addicts or poor people.”

However, this argument was countered by Stuart, who said that this is a major issue in the state as well as in the country. In his words, “This is not about a poor old drug addict (stealing). This is about organized crime, people being directed and acting in concert with each other.”

The legislation has, however, been welcomed by both online and brick-and-mortar retailers like Amazon and Walmart. It has also received support from several organizations, including the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, the Virginia Retail Federation, and the National Federation of Independent Business.

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