Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Felony Conviction for Serial Shoplifters

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled February 19, 2020, that the state of Tennessee can use its burglary statute to prosecute serial shoplifters who have been issued no-trespass warnings banning them from re-entering retail stores. The case before the court was State of Tennessee v. Abbie Leann Welch. 

Deborah White

“This is a significant victory for leading retailers who are doing all they can to combat the growing problem of shoplifting,“ said Deborah White, president of the Retail Litigation Center (RLC) and general counsel of the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “Retailers are grateful to the state of Tennessee for recognizing the gravity of the problem and utilizing the prosecutorial tools at their disposal to make a difference.”

The RLC along with the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) and the Tennessee Retail Association (TRA) filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case urging the Tennessee Supreme Court to permit the enforcement of felony burglary statutes to cover habitual shoplifters who ignore no-trespass notices and then re-enter retail establishments to try to steal more products—in this case, the defendant had followed this pattern for five years.

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Shoplifting costs retailers billions of dollars each year. And worse than the financial harm is the risk to physical safety. Shoplifting frequently escalates into violent encounters that put bystanders, store workers, and first responders at risk. Each year retail workers are killed or gravely injured during shoplifting apprehensions that turn violent.

Retailers collectively invest billions in preventing and deterring shoplifting. No-trespass letters are critical to retailers’ efforts to combat shoplifting, because they directly target repeat offenders—and specifically address the need to deter serial shoplifters from returning to the same store.

Compelled by the friend-of-the-court arguments, the court cited the amicus brief in the majority opinion: “As pointed out by amici curiae Retail Litigation Center, Inc., National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, and Tennessee Retail Association, ‘no trespass’ letters are critical to breaking the cycle of recidivist shoplifting. If individuals comply with the letters, they serve to avoid future encounters between loss prevention officers and ‘serial shoplifters.’ However, ‘no-trespass letters serve little purpose if they are effectively voided any time a person manages to re-enter a store in defiance of being barred from the premises.’ The ‘more sensible approach,’ as advocated by amici, is the one adopted in this case and others in Tennessee and several other states. It ‘recognizes that shoplifters who re-enter a store to steal (again) after being formally barred have committed a serious crime, which will be deterred only with serious penalties.”

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