Petty retail theft added to village codes


Some suburban municipalities have changed their village codes to include petty retail theft as part of their local ordinance violations in response to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office raising the bar for felony charges related to shoplifting.

In December, newly elected Cook County state’s attorney Kim Foxx changed the rules for charging suspects with felonies and directed county prosecutors to keep charging them with misdemeanors unless the suspects stole $1,000 or more worth of merchandise or have had 10 prior felony convictions. Under the previous law, shoplifters could be charged with a felony for stealing between $300 to $500 in merchandise. The move was implemented to reduce low-level offenders in the Cook County Jail, according to a spokesman with the attorney’s office.

"The move clarifies guidelines for how felony retail theft cases will be handled to ensure consistency in charging and to prioritize limited resources," the spokesman said in a statement. "Prosecutors will retain the discretion to review cases and take appropriate action on a case by case basis."

Recently, the Harwood Heights Village Board of Trustees approved an ordinance amending the village code to include "petit theft" in offenses against property.

The ordinance states that "a person commits the offense of petit theft when he takes a property by theft with an aggregate value of less than $300."

"This has been changing over the years. In 1981, if you stole over $150 then it could have been a felony," said Harwood Heights chief of police Frank Biagi. "Over the years it’s been $300 and now it requires multiple convictions or over $1,000 or more to get felony review."

"It’s gotten to be very difficult to get felony charges approved," Biagi said. "It’s still the same amount of work when making the arrest, and doing the paperwork whether it’s a misdemeanor or a felony. This can save us some time."

Biagi said that some village merchants have been upset because some criminals know that they won’t be charged with a felony so they steal under the threshold and get prosecuted for misdemeanors, which could lead to repeat offenses. Biagi said that some merchants have told him about repeat offenders "and they say ‘You guys aren’t doing anything." Biagi said that once an arrest is made it goes to the criminal court "and that’s the extent of what we could do."

However, the change in the Harwood Heights ordinance is aimed at first-time offenders as a deterrent to shoplifting, Biagi said. He said that with the increase of merchants like the new Mariano’s or the Harlem Irving Plaza expansion in the village, shoplifting has been a widespread problem.

"Now, under the new ordinance, we can charge them under the local ordinance," he said. "Instead of going to criminal court and the case essentially gets thrown out, we have got something on the books that we can implement, from community service or fines for first time offenders.

"We want to deter people from shoplifting and so that they see the consequence of their actions," he said. "It gives us more flexibility."

Biagi said that the Village of Elmwood Park adopted a similar petty theft policy earlier this summer. Biagi said that that the Village of Norridge has had similar policy on the books for several years.

The Village of Lincolnwood does not have such a policy, village manager Timothy Wiberg said.

"I haven’t heard of any ordinance being passed regarding this or if there are any plans of doing this. The police department has been dealing with retail theft the way it always did. As far as I’m concerned, shoplifting is still illegal," he said.

"Skokie does not have a local ordinance. We charge offenders with misdemeanors according to the law," said Skokie chief of police Anthony Scarpelli.

Scarpelli said that he doesn’t have a problem with the state’s attorney’s office changing the threshold for charging offenders with felonies.

"Years and years ago a nice shirt and tie was $25 and these days you can pay way over $300 for the same shirt and tie and it could be a felony offense (if you steal)," he said. "The changes are keeping up with the inflation."

Biagi said that as a law enforcement official, he doesn’t think that the attorney’s office should have lowered the threshold.

"But I understand that this was done to free up the jail," Biagi said.