Criminal code changes take effect in July

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Question: What’s the difference between stealing an $800 television and one that costs $700?

Answer: After July 1 it will mean the difference between being charged with a felony and a misdemeanor in Indiana.

Under sweeping changes about to take effect next month to Indiana’s criminal code, theft will not be considered a felony unless the item(s) stolen have a value greater than $750 or the person steals a firearm or has prior theft conviction, according to Dave Powell with the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

I-Team 8 found out that the changes are part of a massive undertaking by lawmakers to rewrite Indiana’s criminal code for the first time in four decades.
One of the main perceived benefits behind the undertaking is a reduction in the state’s prison population. The changes will help ensure serious offenders spend more time behind bars while reducing the number of mandatory sentences for lesser crimes.

“From a prosecutor’s perspective, we should never base public safety on the cost of incarceration,” said Powell.

Powell said the new changes will present some challenges for prosecutors. Among them are the changes to theft. The new law may help clearly define a serious theft from a petty theft, it also limits the discretion of prosecutors. For example, Powell said, a habitual felon with a history of robbery or even murder wouldn’t be hit with a felony theft charge for stealing a $500 television. That’s a misdemeanor.

However, a convicted thief charged with stealing the same television would be slapped with a felony, under the new law.

“A prosecutor might want to file that as a felony (based on that person’s past). We don’t have that option now,” Powell said.

Added to that, Powell says, is the difficulty prosecutors might facing assigning value to a personal item that’s stolen, perhaps a family heirloom with no price tag.

“But now with the $750 amount, that could be challenging if it’s a personal item like an old ring or something that’s priceless to an individual but we can’t put a value on it,” Powell said.

I-Team 8 found more than 1600 shoplifting complaints filed with IMPD in the past year. Those reports include both calls for service where suspects got away and others where they were apprehended.

Many of the reports within the past month involved hundreds of dollars and took place at big retailers inside Castleton Mall, Old Navy, Nordstrom Rack, Walmart, Macy’s and others throughout Indianapolis. All of them are currently considered felonies, but if they were to happen after July 1, they’d be misdemeanors.

I-Team 8 reached out to many of the retailers seeking comment. Only Nordstrom Rack responded by phone. A spokeswoman simply stated: “We are aware of the law and plan to follow it.” She declined to answer further questions.

Under current Indiana law, loss prevention officers can hold suspected shoplifters for up to two hours before an officer arrives and makes an arrest. But that’s because all thefts are considered felonies and are only amended down during negotiations with prosecutors, Powell said. Under the new law, many thefts will be misdemeanors, limiting an officer’s ability to make an arrest.

Sen. Mike Young, R-Ind., said lawmakers plan to fix that when they return to the statehouse on June 17 for a technical correction day.

“It’s just a technical issue that the powers of arrest didn’t follow when we moved it down to $750,” Young said.

Joe Lackey, a lobbyist who represents independent grocers and convenience store owners, said he isn’t as concerned by the law, after receiving assurances from key lawmakers that issues pertaining to officers’ arrest powers would be addressed.

“Our products are still going to be protected, it is still going to be against the law to shoplift,” Lackey told I-Team 8. “Other kinds of retailers, those people might be affected. A grocery store – to get $750 worth of food – you’re going to have to hide an awful lot of turkeys.”

Powell says he hopes lawmakers would consider adding a retail theft statute next session that would address limiting the discretion of prosecutors.

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