Hochul, lawmakers agree to terms to stiffen penalties, add laws aimed at retail theft

Times Union
April 18, 2024

Albany, NY — Gov. Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers have reached agreement on how to stop a scourge of retail theft in New York by passing legislation intended to break up organized efforts to steal and sell stolen merchandise.

The new laws, encompassed within a roughly $237 billion state budget, also include making assaulting a retail worker a felony. And about $40 million is being allocated to launch a law enforcement task force that will target organized retail theft cases.

“To the retail thieves out there, your days are up,” Hochul said on Thursday in Manhattan, touting the policies. “We’ll put you behind bars.”

The policies in this year’s budget build on prior efforts by the governor to reduce crime in the state, especially in New York City. Voters have consistently told pollsters one of their top concerns is crime.

On Thursday in Manhattan, flanked by district attorneys, State Police and the business community, Hochul stood behind a lectern emblazoned with the slogan “cracking down on organized retail theft.” This time, the governor was turning to different prosecutorial means to get retail theft under control that weren’t narrowly focused on the state’s bail laws.

“I know a lot of people, a lot of pundits, a lot of critics said we couldn’t get it done,” Hochul said, asserting opponents said what would pass would amount to a “watered-down version.” “I’m here to say we got it done exactly the way we had hoped for.”

The governor proposed making assault on a retail worker be handled the same under the law as assaulting a first responder. The Legislature, in its counterproposal earlier in the budget cycle, pushed against additional penalties.

The end result was carving out a new criminal penalty on assaulting retail workers, which, if convicted, would be one step lower of the type of felony offense the defendant would face. The current penalty is a misdemeanor, although assaulting anyone who suffers severe injuries can also be charged as a felony, no matter what their line of work. Hochul said increasing it to a felony for assaulting a retail worker is a “dramatic change” for some members of the Legislature, as she reaffirmed that retail workers are front line workers.

Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie has expressed skepticism on additional criminal penalties. “I just don’t believe raising penalties is ever a deterrent on crime,” Heastie told reporters last month. Instead, he often says, government should focus on resolving root causes of crime.

Heastie’s perspective, generally shared by criminal justice advocates, is likely to be tested under the new and more severe penalties lawmakers agreed to put on the books for retail theft. The governor has maintained her belief that penalties can deter crime and help effectively prosecute it, points of view often amplified by law enforcement authorities and district attorneys.

One of the changes seeks to address a concern lawmakers have heard from police and district attorneys — allowing for felony larceny charges against individuals who steal merchandise from several stores.

The current law only allows for items taken from one store to count toward certain monetary thresholds for a person to be charged with grand larceny, a felony. Police leaders have lamented that without being able to charge individuals with a felony, they would be simply arresting someone for petit larceny and those defendants can be quickly released under the state’s bail laws. The bail laws were amended to allow for those crimes to be eligible for the defendant to be held in jail if they are accused of multiple thefts while awaiting trial.

The new law will allow a scenario where if someone steals $500 of merchandise at one store and then $501 of goods at another, they can be charged with grand larceny by combining the value of the stolen goods from both alleged crimes.

Hochul and lawmakers agreed to make it a misdemeanor offense if someone is found to be knowingly selling stolen goods. In New York City, officials have discussed challenges addressing people selling stolen household goods online and also clamping down on street vendors selling stolen goods.

“We worked with (the governor’s) team and they’ve been very generous with their time to address this,” Melissa O’Connor, president and CEO of the Retail Council of New York State, said at Hochul’s news conference Thursday. “They listened, if not just addressed every single point of what we’re dealing with.”

The governor also reached an agreement with lawmakers to broaden the offenses that will be classified as a hate crime. The issue has become particularly potent both after the COVID-19 pandemic that saw a rise in anti-Asian hate and after the Oct. 7 deadly assault on Israel and the long war on Hamas that followed, which has led to a rise in hate crimes against Jewish and Muslim people.

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