Using Legislation to Win against Organized Retail Crime

Gone are the days when groups of organized retail theft criminals receive a slap on the wrist and no jail time. Organized retail crime (ORC) is a recognizable offense that carries stiff penalties in many states. The loss prevention industry has taken a stand against allowing criminal enterprises to financially benefit from stealing and reselling retail property.

With the efforts of the national retail associations, state retail associations, loss prevention practitioners, law enforcement agencies, and legislators, 21 states have passed legislation related to organized retail crime. To date, the following states have ORC-related legislation: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Washington. Some states such as Arizona, Delaware, New Jersey, Oregon, and Utah enhanced their statute to be more defined. States such as Florida are proposing organized retail crime legislation that would mandate a specific sentence for the crime. Federal legislation pertaining to ORC is also on the horizon.

Legislation has become a primary tool used in combating organized retail crime. However, legislative efforts are not accomplished easily. There is a considerable amount of work put into every bill that is proposed. The bill must have a sponsor and the sponsor should be a representative of the cause. Loss prevention practitioners in partnership with many other organizations, both public and private, relay their stories to committee members in order to gain support for the bill. If the bill passes all of the relevant committees and each of the House and Senate, then it goes to the governor. If the governor signs the bill, it will become law.

- Sponsors -

Yet another challenge is once the new law is enacted, there is no special announcement that immediately reaches every police department and prosecutor’s office. Laws are routinely updated; however it is our job as members of the loss prevention community to educate ourselves and our partners in the public sector that a new law has been made available. The new laws pertaining to ORC can stand alone or be incorporated into an existing state statute.

In April 2009, Ohio passed S.B. 320, which defined organized retail crime under the Ohio Corrupt Activity Statute (State RICO statute) and allowed for the aggregation of offences to reach felony thresholds. Senator Bill Seitz sponsored S.B. 320 and the Ohio Retail Merchants proposed the bill. Ohio’s bill was one of the few ORC bills in the United States to be embedded into a state RICO statute. Initially, there was some resistance to prosecute retail crimes under the state RICO statute, but that all changed in 2011 with one very sharp detective who would come to understand the problem of organized retail crime and go “above and beyond” to ensure a case was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Case Synopsis

The main suspect in the case, Timothy A. Bell, was involved with the theft and subsequent resale of stolen eyeglass frames and cigarettes. Involved in this case were also numerous co-conspirators that helped Bell execute his crimes and liquidate the product thereafter. Two specific co-conspirators, Tyrone Johnson and Jose Ramos, were involved the most in the scheme to steal and resell the stolen property. Bell, who was head of a criminal enterprise, was responsible for a considerable amount of monetary losses to retailers in Ohio. As in most cases of organized retail crime, methods are used to distract employees to remove product. In this case, not only were distraction techniques used, but also intimidation and force, which elevated this crime to a very dangerous level for store employees.

Interview with Detective Rick Hannah

Kresevich: Why did you get involved with the case?
Hannah: Bell, Johnson, and Ramos are documented career criminals, so our analysts monitor their criminal behavior. In January of 2011, I began managing a target list of 98 documented career criminals located in the Zone 5 district of the City of Columbus. Many of the habitual offenders were found to be in prison, while some were found to be under indictment, and a few were found to be criminally active. To assist in monitoring the active criminals, I utilized various law enforcement databases, placing activity alerts on ten different career criminals. Based on the scale we use, the main suspect, Bell, scored very high in the ranking, receiving a score of 18 out of 20.

The scale we use is actually called a “Criteria Rating Scale/Criminal Point Analysis.” Each criminal is analyzed by seven categories. These categories are:

  • Crime of Violence (7 point maximum)
  • Three Crime Category (1 point maximum)
  • Drug Category (2 point maximum)
  • Threat Group/Street Gang Member (2 point maximum)
  • Weapons Category (2 point maximum)
  • Felony with last 30 months (1 point maximum)
  • Felony Convictions (5 point maximum)

Kresevich: What was your caseload like at the time you received the information?
Hannah: I had 98 habitual offenders that were being monitored. The caseload consisted of those involved with theft to those involved with homicide.

Kresevich: What steps did you take to investigate the ORC activity?
Hannah: I interviewed witnesses and victims at various offense locations, and utilized various criminal databases to obtain a historical profile of the suspect and determined the MO, trying to establish a pattern. Strategic analysts were used to further the research. The comprehensive analysis also identified the suspect that the store associates later identified.

Kresevich: What did you learn during the investigation with regards to the suspect?
Hannah: I was able to establish a timeline, linking nine different offenses between April and September of 2011 and involved multiple jurisdictions.

Kresevich: You mentioned multi-jurisdictions. This is often a problem for retail investigators to overcome. What did you do about the jurisdictional issues?
Hannah: I was able to find out which cases were assigned to each investigator. Out of six jurisdictions, I determined which detective was handling each of the cases.

Kresevich: How did you work in partnership with other jurisdictions to gain cooperation?
Hannah: I was able to get the other detectives to agree to allow me to adopt their cases in an effort to build one larger case. Because, in one-way or another, the cases were all related.

Kresevich: Did you see this case as a RICO case when you first became involved?
Hannah: No, I saw this case as an isolated felony theft case.

Kresevich: What allowed you to understand it was bigger than just a felony theft case?
Hannah: Once I realized there were co-conspirators, a violent felony offense was involved, and two or more people, I then realized I had the elements necessary for RICO such as: enterprise, co-conspirators, through a pattern of corrupt activity and engaging in the collection of an unlawful debt-through licit or illicit means. One of the charges needed to be a felony of a third degree or higher, which we had.

Kresevich: What was the third-degree felony in this case?
Hannah: When the suspect pushed the employee while leaving the store and the retail losses were well over the felony threshold.

Kresevich: Had you ever heard of SB 320 before this case?
Hannah: No, the investigator told me there was new legislation, and I reviewed it to understand what it entailed.

Kresevich: What did you know about retail theft and organized retail crime before you took this case?
Hannah: Very little.

Kresevich: Had you ever worked a retail theft case before?
Hannah: No. Our unit is mainly involved with crimes against persons, not crimes against property.

Kresevich: How much time did you spend investigating this crime?
Hannah: Three months

Kresevich: How much money did your department spend investigating this crime?
Hannah: Aside from my normal salary, a very small amount of overtime – no other monies.

Kresevich: What made this case easier to investigate?
Hannah: All the assistance I received from the private sector.

Kresevich: How did you pitch this case to the prosecutor?
Hannah: In order to combine nine situations, I had to pick a venue, try the cases separately, or try it all together. I had to approach prosecutors and ask them to adopt all of the cases, which was a long shot. I brought a laptop with a PowerPoint on it, which contained information about the new organized retail crime legislation, suspects, property loss, MO, incident locations, and handouts. The handouts contained what was in the presentation. We were able to sit down at the conference table and make a pitch. Many of the incidents associated with this case were unsolved crimes.

Kresevich: Why did the prosecutors agree to adopt the cases?
Hannah: They were familiar with the new ORC law that fell under the RICO statute, which was rare, because many were unfamiliar with it.

Kresevich: How did the case begin to progress?
Hannah: The prosecutors asked to get the case to a grand jury quickly. Their goal was to get the thefts to stop. They reviewed the case file and didn’t want any changes. The case was then set for grand jury. The grand jury heard the case, which involved RICO and came back with a unanimous decision. The grand jury “true billed,” which means there was enough probable cause to indict both defendants. Over the course of the next week investigators worked with Columbus PD patrol units to execute arrest warrants. Within a week the defendants were captured and investigators linked the defendants with several other co-conspirators in numerous other retail crime theft and robbery incidents. Therefore, the case was separated into two separate jurisdictions. The RICO portion went to Fairfield County, while some other incidents went to another jurisdiction. After the arraignment process in both jurisdictions, the co-conspirators were held in jail due to high bonds. Then began the prosecution, including motion to suppress, motion for discovery, and motion to change venue.

Kresevich: What was the biggest challenge?
Hannah: The motion to change venue. The majority of crimes occurred in Franklin County and this case was being tried in Fairfield County. The motion was denied because both prosecutors had previously agreed to prosecute the case in Fairfield County.

Kresevich: What happened next?
Hannah: The case proceeded and the defense attorney filed many more motions in an attempt to suppress eyewitness testimony and investigative procedures. No motions were granted. After the last motion to suppress was denied, defense council initiated plea agreement offers, but the prosecution and defense could not agree on a joint recommendation for sentencing.

Kresevich: When did the case finally make some movement?
Hannah: The jury selection began little over a year after indictment. The defendant waved the jury trial and decided to have a bench trial. This occurred because the case was strong. The prosecutors had 26 eyewitnesses and seven different police agencies.

Kresevich: What was the defendant thinking?
Hannah: After hearing testimony from three witnesses, he threw in the towel.

Kresevich: How does the story end?
Hannah: Bell accepted a plea agreement for six years, however on January 15, 2013, when Judge Barrons heard sentencing arguments from the prosecution and defense, he rejected the joint recommendation for the six-year sentence and issued a sentence for seven years and eleven months. Bell also agreed to participate in a training video on his group’s tactics for retail investigators. Johnson received eight years and six months; Ramos received four years. The total restitution to be paid back to retailers is $10,410.

Private-Public Partnership

This story represents a partnership between the private and public sector that resolved an on-going situation to the best of the law’s ability. Loss prevention representatives, law enforcement, and prosecutors worked tirelessly to ensure that no stone went unturned during the investigative process.

During the Bell investigation, several other organized retail crime cases appeared with the same methods, although not related. Det. Hannah did participate in one of the other investigation involving sunglasses, and the suspect received a sentence of three years in jail as a result. In the other case, Det. Hannah trained a detective that was unfamiliar with organized retail crime on how to adopt cases and bring them to a successful closure. The suspect in that case received two years in jail.

After many of the suspects referenced above were apprehended, the amount of incidents in the area declined, and as a result, store associates can focus on their selling techniques as opposed to dealing with shoplifters on a daily basis.

This article was originally published in 2013 and was updated February 26, 2016.

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