Shoplifting: A holiday problem

By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Many people will spend this holiday season paying a jail bond, wearing an electronic ankle bracelet or serving jail time because they tried to steal something from a store.
Shoplifting reports and arrests consistently increase in the months of November and December, leaving many residents paying fines to the city instead of buying Christmas presents.
Larry Montgomery, director of Tupelo Municipal Court, said the idea that a certain subset or type of person shoplifts is a myth.
“Shoplifting isn’t unique to one socioeconomic class,” he said. “It spans the entire spectrum of humanity.”
Tupelo Police Lt. Marty Mask agreed, “I know we’ve had a cross-section of people – teachers, nurses – people just tempted to take stuff because they think they can,” he said. “Some may be stealing because they’re hungry, but I don’t think it’s that many.”
Mask said most people can’t even tell him why they wanted to shoplift, “They just do it to do it,” he said.
Montgomery said he sees people who think they can because they are in a big store and the item will never be missed. He has also seen children who think they have to have a certain item to fit in or to take an item as initiation to be part of a certain clique.
“No matter the reason for it, it’s illegal,” he said.
In Mississippi, anyone convicted with shoplifting the first time can be saddled with up to a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. The maximum penalty for a second shoplifting conviction is the same.
Taking less than $500 in merchandise is considered a misdemeanor. Taking $500 or more of merchandise is considered a felony and caries a $5,000 fine and five years in the state penitentiary.
Once a person has been convicted of a third misdemeanor shoplifting offense, it is automatically elevated to a felony offense, carrying up to a $5,000 fine and five years in the state penitentiary.
“The third shoplifting offense is a felony no matter what the dollar amount is,” Montgomery said.
Lt. Marty Mask said most people would be surprised by the items they see stolen.
“We’ve had women try to walk out of a store with hams between their legs and people try to conceal steaks in their clothing,” he said.
Tupelo police file reports for shoplifting at each Walmart in Tupelo on an almost daily basis, usually for insignificant items like a small piece of women’s clothing, a bag of chips or inexpensive clothing accessories.
According to Mississippi law, the act of concealing any merchandise or intending to transfer it as personal property without paying the stated price is considered shoplifting.
Most larger stores, like Walmart or Kohl’s, have loss prevention employees who keep an eye out for shoplifters.
Mask said the employees usually contact the police department when they have identified a shoplifter. The Mississippi Code of 1972 gives merchants or anyone acting as an agent of a merchant (employee) the right to reasonably detain any shoplifting suspects.
When police arrive, the merchant or employee will sign an affidavit saying they witnessed the suspect shoplifting and the police officer will take the suspect to jail or to the police department where an electronic monitoring device is strapped to their ankle.
Once in police custody, the suspect faces a possible fine, any cost associated with bonding out of jail or the $10 per day fee associated with wearing an ankle bracelet.
In Tupelo Municipal Court, Montgomery said they generally fine a first-time offender $804 (including fees and assessments) and make them serve two days in jail or four days on a work program. For the second offense, he said a judge will usually give jail time based on the value of the item stolen as well as fine them $1,004.
Once legal fees are paid through the court, a merchant can still pursue civil action against someone convicted of shoplifting. Civil action can include demanding restocking fees, reimbursing the cost of the item and reimbursing any legal fees incurred while pursuing the civil action.
The Tupelo Police Department has reported a significant increase in shoplifting when comparing a regular two-month period to November and December each year from 2009 to 2011.
When comparing shoplifting in February and March to incidents in the holiday season, the smallest increase since 2009 was in 2011 when the holiday season saw 20 percent more shoplifting arrests.
Mask said in 2011, the Tupelo Police Department recorded just over 300 shoplifting incidents. So far this year, there have already been more than 500 indents.
To read about how shoplifting affects businesses, check the business section of Sunday’s Daily Journal.
jb.clark@journalinc.com