The case of a Florida man charged with a felony for the theft of $1 worth of liquid has reverberated around the country. In case you hadn’t heard, here’s the gist: man goes into an East Naples fast food joint, gets a cup for (free) water, and uses said cup to help himself to a fountain drink.
The manager asked him to pay. He refused, the cops came and took him away, according to fellow Scripps’ website Naplesnews.com.
Not every theft in Florida is a felony. But it turns out the Sunshine state has a pesky law that raises a petty theft charge to a felony when the person has multiple petty theft convictions. That takes the penalty the man faces from a maximum one year stay in his local jail to the possibility of five years in a Florida prison.
So, do petty thieves in our home state of Washington face that
same fate? The short answer is
no not exactly.
Clarke Tibbits, head of the Kitsap County Office of Public Defense, says defendants here can purloin goods worth less than $750 repeatedly and only face a gross misdemeanor each time. “Multiple (third-degree thefts) don’t result in felonies,” he says, noting he once worked a case in which the defendant had a whopping 27 shoplifting convictions on his record.
There are some exceptions: if the theft exceeds $750, that bumps a charge up to a felony (and possible prison time). Also, the defendant can be charged with burglary if he had previously shoplifted and been trespassed from the place he’d returned to steal from.
UPDATE, 4.30.12: A reader informed me Monday that there is indeed another possibility for a felony to come from shoplifting: a state law passed in 2006 known as “retail theft with extenuating circumstances.” A person can be convicted of that crime if:
(a) To facilitate the theft, the person leaves the mercantile establishment through a designated emergency exit;
(b) The person was, at the time of the theft, in possession of an item, article, implement, or device designed to overcome security systems including, but not limited to, lined bags or tag removers; or
(c) The person committed theft at three or more separate and distinct mercantile establishments within a one hundred eighty-day period.
Obviously, (c) applies here. So indeed Washington does have a felony for a frequent shoplifter — but the thefts must have occurred within 180 days.
I must apologize for this omission, but it’s important to set the record straight.
It’s worth noting that these distinctions govern only the amount of time one would face for filling up that free cup with a fountain drink. In our state, there is no theft so de minimus that it could not lead to a pair of handcuffs in the eyes of the law.