Perry Lutz says his struggle to survive as a small businessman became a lot harder after California voters reduced theft penalties 1½ years ago.
About a half-dozen times this year, shoplifters have stolen expensive drones or another of the remote-controlled toys he sells in HobbyTown USA, a small shop in Rocklin, northeast of Sacramento. "It's just pretty much open season," Lutz said. "They'll pick the $800 unit and just grab it and run out the door."
Anything below $950 keeps the crime a misdemeanor — and likely means the thieves face no pursuit and no punishment, say retailers and law enforcement officials. Large retailers including Safeway, Target, Rite Aid and CVS pharmacies say shoplifting increased at least 15 percent, and in some cases doubled, since voters approved Proposition 47 and ended the possibility of charging shoplifting as a felony with the potential for a prison sentence.
Shoplifting reports to the Los Angeles Police Department jumped by a quarter in the first year, according to statistics the department compiled for The Associated Press. The ballot measure also lowered penalties for forgery, fraud, petty theft and drug possession.
Public Policy Institute of California researcher Magnus Lofstrom noted a troubling increase in property crime in California's largest cities in the first half-year after Proposition 47 took effect. Preliminary FBI crime reports show a 12 percent jump in larceny-theft, which includes shoplifting, but he said it is too early to determine what, if any, increase is due to the ballot measure.
The increase in shoplifting reports set up a debate over how much criminals pay attention to penalties, and whether law enforcement is doing enough to adapt to the legal change.
Prosecutors, police and retailers, including California Retailers Association President Bill Dombrowski and CVS Health spokesman Mike DeAngelis, say the problem is organized retail theft rings whose members are well aware of the reduced penalties.
"The law didn't account for that," said Capt. John Romero, commander of the LAPD's commercial crimes division. "It did not give an exception for organized retail theft, so we're seeing these offenders benefiting and the retailers are paying the price."
Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, who led the drive to pass Proposition 47, said law enforcement still has plenty of tools, including using the state's general conspiracy law and proving that the same thief is responsible for multiple thefts that together top $950.
Shoplifting rings generally recruit society's most vulnerable — the homeless, low-end drug users, those living in the country illegally — to steal merchandise that can be sold for a discount on the streets or over the Internet, said Joseph LaRocca, a Los Angeles-based theft-prevention consultant and formerly the National Retail Federation's vice president of loss prevention.
While misdemeanors, in theory, can bring up to a year in county jail, Fresno Police Sgt. Mark Hudson said it's not worth it to issue a citation or arrest a suspect who would likely be immediately released because of overcrowding.
"We've heard of cases where they're going into stores with a calculator so they can make sure that what they steal is worth less than $950," said Robin Shakely, Sacramento County assistant chief deputy district attorney.
Adam Gelb, director of the public safety performance project at The Pew Charitable Trusts, disputes those sorts of anecdotes.
"The vast majority of offenders just aren't fine-tuning their behavior that way," Gelb said.
His organization recently reported finding no effect on property crimes and larceny rates in 23 states that increased the threshold to charge thefts as felonies instead of misdemeanors between 2001 and 2011. California raised its threshold from $400 in 2010.
"It's hard to see how raising the level to $950 in California would touch off a property crime wave when raising it to $2,000 in South Carolina six years ago hasn't registered any impact at all," Gelb said.
The study did not include the effects of Proposition 47, but Gelb and other Pew researchers said there is no reason to believe adding shoplifting to the list would spark an increase in thefts.
California is among 17 states without an organized retail crime law that specifically targets shoplifting rings with tougher penalties, according to the Organized Retail Crime Resource Center. Results vary: Of the top five states for shoplifting last year, three — Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas — had such laws, while California and New York did not.
For his part, Lutz, the hobby shop owner, has provided police with surveillance videos, and even the license plate, make and model of the getaway vehicles.
"They go, 'Perry, our hands are tied because it's a misdemeanor,'" Lutz said. "It's not worth pursuing, it's just a waste of manpower."