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Opinion | A mistake at self-checkout could make you a felon

Proposed legislation could turn simple, common mistakes into 20-year prison sentences.

Unrecognizable woman checking a long grocery receipt leaning to a full shopping cart at store.
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Have you ever forgotten to scan an item at the self check-out line and only discovered your mistake when you got back to the car? Or, you walked past the register to get an item located outside the store with your cart full of merchandise, before going back into the store to pay? Do you think that should be a felony that could land you in prison for 20 years?

Well, under a new bill in the Alabama House, HB288, you could easily be charged with a Class B felony for unknowingly committing a new crime called “retail theft.”

The proposed legislation has been dubbed “The Retail Crime Prevention Act,” yet it does nothing at all to actually prevent crime. Although it supposedly aims to combat organized criminal groups that engage in retail theft, this bill is loaded with ambiguity – ambiguity that can be easily misapplied or misinterpreted to result in unintended and severe consequences.

For example, the bill makes it a felony to steal a shopping cart, because many shopping carts actually cost over $500. Stealing a shopping cart, by the way, is already against the law. Yet, how many times have you seen destitute people using a shopping cart they found in the street, but didn’t steal, to haul what little they own? Under this law, it would be automatically assumed that they stole it and that would be a Class B felony. If someone was with them, they would be charged as an accomplice and would face the same felony charges.

The bill also makes it a felony to participate in “aggravated retail theft,” which is defined as when two or more people are suspected to be acting in concert as accomplices to commit retail theft. However, the bill’s language is so vague and ambiguous, it seems to equate two college kids stealing a candy bar to much more serious premeditated, organized criminal gangs engaging in grand theft.

But, the real problem here might be that one distracted moment when you, or someone in your family, forgot to scan the case of bottled water or dog food that was placed under the cart and, suddenly, you are now facing up to 20 years in prison. Not to mention, losing your job, your family, and your future. This just doesn’t make any sense and it sure doesn’t prevent criminal gangs from shoplifting.

Maybe stores should stop cutting costs on security by putting in more and more self check-outs to increase their profit margins. Stores also put tons of merchandise outside their establishments to attract customers. So, you can see how easily it could be misapplied to an innocent consumer who decided to go outside to get another item and had every intention to pay for it.

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If lawmakers are truly concerned about combating criminal gangs that steal their merchandise, this bill seriously misses the mark. Simply adding harsher punishments to something already illegal is not going to do much, if anything.

In effect, this bill would put more people in prison for much longer and exacerbate the overcrowding issues we struggle with now. Alabama prisons are already bursting at the seams. Tough penalties and longer sentences are not the answer. We can all agree that stealing is wrong. Theft and shoplifting should be punished. and it is under our existing laws. This bill doesn’t make our communities safer. Nor does it address rising consumer costs. Instead, it could result in innocent shoppers being accused and/or convicted of a felony.

If we want to get smart on crime, we need to address its root causes – poverty, lack of educational opportunity, and a shortage of stable, family-sustaining jobs. We already have laws for theft and shoplifting. Let’s not pass a flawed and unnecessary bill that could put someone in prison because they forgot to scan a bag of dog food in the bottom of their cart.

Rep. Prince Chestnut is a member of the Alabama House of Representatives, representing House District 67.

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