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Tucson Republican wants to allow citizen's arrests for shoplifters

file photo

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- The way Justine Wadsack sees it, the explosion of retail theft requires something more than store owners waiting for police to arrive.
So the Tucson Republican is proposing to expand existing laws on citizen arrests to allow anyone to make an arrest for shoplifting, regardless of the value of the items being stolen.
Current law does allow for a ``citizen's arrest'' when someone is witnessing a felony. In the case of theft, that means a value of more than $2,000.
Everything less than that is a misdemeanor. And the law allows an individual to make an arrest in those cases only when there is a ``breach of the peace,'' generally defined as disorderly or dangerous conduct.
What Wadsack's SB 1613 would do is extend that permission to allow individuals to make an arrest in a case of ``a theft of property from a retail store.''
And the measure, approved by the Senate this week on a 16-14 party-line vote, would include not just the store owner or employee but any ``private person.''
Pima County Attorney Laura Conover thinks that's a horrible idea.
She said people who go into a store to steal something, often with the idea of selling it to get some cash, are ``not thinking clearly.'' And Conover told Capitol Media Services that having a private citizen try to take them into custody can lead to lots of people getting hurt, including the shoplifter, the person making the arrest -- and anyone else nearby.
Conover said that's not just her view. She said it also is shared by Tucson Police Chief Chad Kasmar.
But Josh Jacobsen, a member of the Tucson Crime Free Coalition, which got Wadsack to sponsor the measure, disagrees.
``I don't necessarily see it as creating a problem,'' he said. More to the point, Jacobsen said in an interview, this kind of legislation is necessary to deal with an increasing problem of retail theft, not only in Tucson but throughout the state.
``I think the people are fed up with watching this happen right in front of them,'' he said.
Jacobsen, who owns a Lucky Wishbone franchise, said the coalition of more than 7,000 business owners and others got involved because of how the problem is affecting them.
``Our businesses, our assets were just being destroyed,'' he said. ``And there's just no relief.''
Part of that, Jacobsen said, is due to an insufficient number of police officers. But he also takes issue with Conover, saying that her office does not prosecute cases, even in felonies.
``The community has to have resources or means to protect themselves if we can't get law enforcement here, if we can't get the results we need when our assets and livelihoods are being destroyed,'' Jacobsen said.
Conover, for her part, said prosecutions are taking place. And she said they don't require anyone to try to detain a shoplifter.
``We have an extremely high charge rate of ... organized retail theft because 90% of this is on camera,'' she said.
``Let the surveillance cameras do their job safely, hands off, '' Conover said, allowing them to identify and issue warrants for serial offenders. ``And that's the safe way to get it done.''
The county attorney said having individual citizens step in is just too unpredictable.
``If a person who is perhaps quite likely not thinking clearly, stealing food or property to sell ... they're not exercising judgment,'' she said. ``The last thing we want to is have people confront them instead of waiting for the police.''
She said the ``proliferation of firearms'' only makes things worse.
``All too often, what starts as a little scuffle is turning into a fatal incident because firearms are far too present, they're within reach,'' Conover said.
``What starts out to be, 'Oh, I'm just going to hold the person until the police come' can end up being fatal,'' she continued. ``And that's why we're out there counseling, 'Don't do it. Let it go.' ''
Jacobsen, however, said there are time when having individual intervention is appropriate.
``Let's say I'm in a sporting goods store and I see someone do this,'' he said. ``If I see them grab everything, yeah, I'll probably detain you and sit on you until the cops get there.''
But Jacobsen said that decision to intercede or not is not absolute.
``I'm going to size them up,'' he said, and determine the risk.
But not doing anything in any situation, said Jacobsen, is not a reasonable alternative, even if the person doing the shoplifting is not using judgment.
``Should we just let that person go because they're trying to go get drugs, and this is just a situation where they have no other recourse?'' he asked.
And there's something else.
Jacobsen said even just changing the law to allow anyone to nab shoplifters may have a deterrent effect.
``Word does travel on the street,'' he said. And Jacobsen said if would-be thieves understand that they have to fear not only the police but everyone else in the store, ``maybe people would start thinking twice about it.''
Sen. Anna Hernandez, D-Phoenix, who voted against the bill when it was approved by the Senate, said there are other problems with the measure. And it starts, she said, with the question of empowering untrained people to decide when a crime like retail theft is taking place.
``SB 1613 opens up potentially dangerous interaction between anyone who may or may not be intending to steal from a retail store and a bystander who is observing what they think is theft,'' Hernandez said.
And then there's the dual risk to the person making the arrest.
``It does not give a person immunity for immunity in a situation if the suspected individual is injured,'' she said. ``And it could very easily cause the person who is intervening to be the one that's harmed.''
The measure now goes to the House.
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