Category Archives: Retail Theft

Gift Cards Are “Access Devices”

In State v. Nelson, the WA Court of Appeals Division II reversed the dismissal of the defendant’s case and decided a gift card is, in fact, an access device.

Defendant Angel Rose Marie Nelson was a Kmart employee. A surveillance video showed that Nelson left her cash register three times to retrieve an empty gift card, then activated each card by adding funds to it without adding cash to the cash register.

She activated an Amazon.com gift card for $100, a MasterCard gift card for roughly $205, and a JoAnn’s Fabric & Craft Store gift card for $25. She later used at least two of these cards.

The State charged Nelson with one count of second degree theft of an access device and one count of second degree possession of a stolen access device. Nelson moved to dismiss the charges under CrR 8.3(c) and Knapstad motion. She argued that the term “access device” could not include gift cards. The superior court granted Nelson’s motion, ruling that, as a matter of law, a gift card is not an access device. The State appealed.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of Nelson’s case.

First, the Court reasoned that, under MERRIAM-WEBSTER UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY, gift cards can access an account because the plain meaning of the word “account” is broad enough to cover a gift card’s balance:

“Under this definition, a gift card can access an account as described above. It is a card that can be used to receive goods or services of a specified value. A gift card thus shows a resulting balance. It is a device that can be used to access a record of a business relationship with outstanding credits, debits, or obligations, and a sum of money—that is, an account.”

In conclusion, the Court held that the definition of “access device” can include gift cards so long as they are a means of account access. The word “account” is not limited to a bank account because the plain language of the statute includes no such limitation. The funds to which a gift card provides access can be an account under this statute.

Wire Cutters Are NOT Theft Tools.

In State v. Larson, the WA Supreme Court overruled the WA Court of Appeals and decided that the crime of Retail Theft With Special Circumstances under RCW 9A.56.360(1)(b), which elevates theft to a more serious offense when the defendant is in possession of “an item, article, implement or device designed to overcome security systems,” only applies to an item that is created – whether by the manufacturer or the defendant – with the specific purpose of disabling or evading security systems.

Defendant Zachary Larson attempted to steal a $32 pair of shoes from a Marshall’s store in Bellingham, WA. The shoes were equipped with a security device that was attached to the shoes by wire. Yet, Larson, using wire cutters that he had brought into the store, severed the wire and removed the security device. When Larson tried to leave the store, he was stopped by security employees and, subsequently, was charged with one count of Retail Theft with Special circumstances, which criminalizes the commission of retail theft while in possession of a “device designed to overcome security systems.”

While the case was pending, Larson argued a Knapstad motion to dismiss. The trial court denied the motion and found Larson guilty as charged. He was sentenced to 60 days of confinement. Larson appealed. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals confirmed Larson’s conviction. Larson appealed again to the WA Supreme Court.

The WA Supreme Court addressed the specific issue of whether ordinary wire cutters are “designed to overcome security systems” within the context of retail theft.

The Court reasoned that whenever it must interpret the meaning and scope of a statute, “our fundamental objective is to determine and give effect to the intent of the legislature.” Furthermore,  lined bags and tag removers – of which the Defendant did not possess – are highly specialized tools with little to no utility outside of the commission of retail theft. “From this fact, it can be reasonably inferred that there is no reason a person would be in possession of these items except to facilitate retail theft.”

Furthermore, reasoned the court we must interpret statutes to avoid absurd results:

For example, where a person slips a stolen item into his pocket to hide it from a store’s security camera, the pocket has arguably become a “device designed to overcome security systems.” Similarly, a person who happens to have in her pocket a pair of nail clippers, a Leatherman multi tool, or any other tool that people commonly carry with them, at the time she shoplifts would be guilty of retail theft with extenuating circumstances. As these practical examples demonstrate, the State’s over-inclusive approach belies the statute’s primary purpose of capturing retail theft that occurs under certain aggravating circumstances.

The Court concluded that the plain language of the Retail Theft statute indicates that the legislature intended the statute to have a narrow scope:

We hold that “designed to overcome security systems” for the purposes of retail theft . . . is limited to those items, articles, implements, or devices created-whether by the defendant or manufacturer-with the specialized purpose of overcoming security systems. Ordinary tools, such as pliers or the wire cutters used by Larson, do not fall within the scope . . .  The evidence is insufficient to support Larson’s conviction for third degree retail theft with extenuating circumstances, and we reverse the Court of Appeals.

My opinion? Good decision. In interpreting the statute, the WA Supreme Court correctly applied a narrow scope because, quite frankly, any household tool found in the pockets of an alleged thief can be viewed as a tool “designed to overcome security systems.” This is unjust. Retail Theft With Special Circumstances is a Class C felony exposing defendants up to 5 years prison and a $10,000 fine. That’s quite serious. Do we want to punish thieves with Class C felonies for stealing shoes from Marshall’s store while carrying a Swiss Army knife in their pocket? Do these circumstances warrant sending people to prison? No. The WA Supreme Court got this one right.

State v. Larson: Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances

Interesting opinion.

In State v. Larson wire cutters, which were used to sever the wire that attached a department store security device to a pair of Nike shoes, are a “device designed to overcome security systems” for purposes of RCW 9A.56.360(1)(b). 

Defendant Zachary Larson attempted to steal a pair of shoes from a retail store. The shoes were equipped with a security device that was attached to the shoes by wire. Yet, Larson, using wire cutters that he had brought into the store, severed the wire and removed the security device. When Larson tried to leave the store, he was stopped by security employees and, subsequently, was charged with one count of Retail Theft with Extenuating circumstances under RCW 9A.56.360(1)(b), which criminalizes the commission of retail theft while in possession of a “device designed to overcome security systems.”

While the case was pending, he argued a Knapstad motion seeking dismissal of the charge. Therein, he argued that, as a matter of law, wire cutters do not constitute a “device designed to overcome security systems.” The trial court denied his Knapstad motion. On December 18, the trial court found Larson guilty as charged. He was sentenced to 60 days of confinement. Larson appealed on the argument that the trial court improperly denied his Knapstad motion and that wire cutters do, in fact, constitute a device designed to overcome security systems.

The court disagreed with Larson and stated the following:

“The plain meaning of the statute reveals the legislature’s intent to punish thieves who, anticipating that the possession ofa device which may be able to foil a store’s security system will be expedient to their cause, commit retail theft while in possession of such a device. In recognition of the fact that wire cutters are designed to cut wire, which is a common feature ofsecurity systems, we hold that, within the meaning of former RCW 9A.56.360(1 )(b), wire cutters constitute a ‘device designed to overcome security systems.'”

The Court also reasoned that the Division II Court of Appeals decision in State v. Reeves, ___ Wn. App. ___, 336 P.3d 105 (2014) – a recent opinion which held that “ordinary pliers” do not constitute a device designed to overcome security systems – was wrongfully decided :

“To exclude wire cutters from the statute’s reach on the basis that wire cutters may be used in other settings to achieve different ends would frustrate the legislature’s intent, while providing those inclined to commit retail theft with an unmistakable incentive to employ “ordinary devices,” as characterized by the Reeves court, to pursue their nefarious ends. Surely, the legislature did not intend such a result.”

With that, the Court upheld Larson’s conviction.

State v. Reeves: Retail Theft Charges Dismissed With Knapstad Motion

Good case. Recently, the WA Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s decision to grant a defendant’s Knapstad motion to dismiss a charge of Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/D2%2044811-4-II%20%20Published%20Opinion.pdf

The Defendant was accused of using  a pair of ordinary pliers to remove an anti-theft secutory device at a store. He was caught and charged with Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances. His attorney argued a Knapstad motion to dismiss on the basis that ordinary pliers were not “an item, article, implement or device designed to overcome security systems including, but not limited to, lined bags or tag removers. The judge granted the motion and reasoned that including common tools into the definition of devices designed to overcome security systems would render every act of removing a security device an extenuating circumstance. The State appealed.

Some background on Knapstad motions is necessary. In State v. Knapstad, 107 Wash.2d 346 (1986), the Supreme Court created a procedure similar to summary judgment in a civil case, under which a criminal defendant can, by way of pre-trial motion, challenge the sufficiency of the prosecution’s evidence. In essence, if the prosecution cannot show by competent affidavit that it has a prima facie case of guilt on all elements, the court must dismiss the charge. In evaluating sufficiency of evidence, the court looks at the undisputed material facts already in the court record from the finding of probable cause, and ascertains whether as a matter of law, the prosecution has established a prima facie showing of guilt. For more information on Knapstad Motions, please read my Legal Guide titled, “Dismissing Cases Through Knapstad Motions.” http://www.avvo.com/legal-guides/ugc/getting-cases-dismissed-through-knapstad-motions

Likewise, some background on the felony charge of Retail Theft With Extenuating Circumstances. Under former RCW 9A.5.360(1)(b), an extenuating circumstance for retail Theft charges includes being in possession of an item, article, implement, or device designed to overcome security systems including, but not litmited to, lined bags or tag removers.

 Here, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal pursuant to the defendant’s Knapstad motion. They reasoned the criminal statute was ambiguous about the definition of the class of “tools” which created the aggravating factor of “Retail Theft.”

Also, the “Rule of Lenity” made another basis for upholding the trial court’s decision: “Because the language of former RCW 9A.56.360(1)(b) is ambiguous, we first turn to the principles of statutory construction, the legislative history and the statutory scheme to determine the legislature’s intent. If this analysis still does not clearly show the legislature’s intent, the Rule of Lenity requires us to interpret the statute in Reeve’s favor.” Here, the Court ruled that the principles of statutory construction and an analysis of the legislative history and statutory scheme do not resolve the ambiguity of the statute in the State’s favor. For these reasons, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision.

My opinion? Good decision. Both the trial court and the court of Appeals got it right.

Whatcom County Jail Gets Record Number of Inmates

Front page news, Bellingham Herald.

http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2010/02/27/1313259/whatcom-county-jail-gets-record.html?storylink=omni_popular

Whatcom County Jail’s population hit a record high over Presidents Day weekend and since then, law enforcement agencies have been booking fewer people, to ease the crowding.

The jail’s population reached 323 inmates – its operational capacity should be 212 inmates -the weekend of Feb. 13-15, causing the jail to run out of temporary beds and come close to running out of clothes, sheets and other resources.

From Feb. 1 to Feb. 16, an average of 26 people were booked into the jail each day.

Bellingham police have been citing and releasing some people arrested on misdemeanor, and booking and then immediately releasing others.  An officer might take some people to jail to have their photos and fingerprints taken, then have the jail release them.

My opinion?  I’ll state the obvious: the criminal justice system in Whatcom County has reached peaked capacity.  Jails are overcrowded.  Trial calendars are filled.   Trust me, I know.

The easy solution?  Hire an additional judge, build additional courts, and build another jail.  Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen any time soon.   Put simply, The County lacks resources to build jails and/or hire more court staff.  This is not due to sloppy spending on the part of the County.  The Whatcom Superior Court has already eliminated numerous services due to the decrease in revenues.  That said, the likelihood of obtaining more revenue to hire another judge and/or construct another jail is slim to none.

The harder solution – and probably the more criticized; yet WORKABLE solution – is for the Prosecutor’s Office to negotiate more cases to a favorable resolution.  They’re a trial-happy bunch, and unnecesarily so.  Not every case must be brought to trial.  Justice happens when all parties leave the courtroom satisfied with the result.

At any rate, overcrowded jails are symptomatic of larger problems.  The County judiciary is burning the candlestick at both ends.  We’re seeing a decrease in judicial revenues and an increase in inmates.  The state of affairs certainly is alarming.  Why now, and why all of the sudden?

A tough nut to crack . . .