Flash mobs aren’t just those groups of people who mobilize via social media to converge on, say, a food court to burst into song.
Now, they also are swarming stores and stealing things in a trend known as “flash robs.”
Stores from Portland to Chicago were overwhelmed last year with young people who entered a store in sync and stole items while clerks were helpless to intervene.
Here in Washington, a legislator wants to address this newfound problem by making it easier to prosecute groups of people who organize a theft spree via text or email.
Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, has introduced legislation that would allow groups of nine or more people to be charged with organized retail theft if they collectively steal $250 or more in merchandise and use electronic messages to plan the crime.
Existing law requires a person and at least one accomplice to steal goods worth $750 or more to be charged with organized retail theft, which is a felony.
Carrell’s proposal, Senate Bill 5178, had a hearing Friday before the Senate Law & Justice Committee. He said Washington needs to emphasize that these kinds of “come together, smash-and-grab type of organized activities” won’t be tolerated here.
“There’s nothing wrong with people communicating over the phone and coming together as a group to do a dance or something else,” Carrell said in an interview. “It’s when it is organized for a criminal activity and a bunch of people come into a store, and there’s so many of them that the store owner is simply overwhelmed and can do nothing. And they’re simply grabbing things off the shelves and disappearing.”
Carrell said that he’s not aware of any flash mob thefts happening in his district or nearby. But Carrell said the growing popularity of these types of crimes elsewhere means it’s “one of those things that we really need to nip in the bud.”
During Friday’s bill hearing, Carrell showed flash mob thieves in action by playing security video from a June 2012 theft that occurred in the Portland suburb of Troutdale. In that incident, about 30 to 40 teens entered an Albertsons grocery store and stole various items.
It was one of several flash mob thefts that occurred in the Portland area last year, according to local news reports. In April 2012, a group of 16 teenagers entered a gas station convenience store in southeast Portland and stole candy and soda while a store worker was unable to stop them. The same month, a group struck a Nordstrom department store at a Portland mall and stole six North Face jackets, valued collectively at $650.
“We haven’t really been able to do anything,” said Sgt. Pete Simpson, spokesman for the Portland Police Department. “We’ve worked on it and tried to identify people involved in these thefts, but given the nature of them, they’re very difficult to predict.”
Retail organizations testified in support of Carrell’s proposal Friday, saying that store owners are concerned for their customers’ safety.
“These things are getting more aggressive, and we’re very concerned that someone could get hurt during the commission of these crimes,” said Mark Johnson of the Washington Retail Association. “It’s very important that we have something on the books to deter (this).”
Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, said he is worried that creating a lower threshold for a felony theft conviction could flood Washington’s court system with new felony cases, creating a financial burden for the state. It was Kline’s legislation that successfully upped the monetary threshold for a felony theft charge from $250 to $750 in 2009.
“It kind of guts the bill we had several years ago, doesn’t it?” Kline asked.
Members of the Washington State Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys share Kline’s concerns, said defense attorney Robert Quillian.
Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209