By Guy Page
As retail theft and other drug-related crimes plague Vermont businesses and communities, one local police department is cautioning citizens against taking perpetrators of retail theft into their own hands – literally.
On September 6, Berlin police responded to the parking lot of Walmart for a report of a group of shoppers who had an alleged shoplifter restrained to the ground.
The man was identified as David Lefebvre of Berlin. He was taken into custody, charged with retail theft, and cited to appear in court in early November. Lefebvre’s motive for the alleged retail theft is not known. The police statement reporting this incident included several cautionary warnings to citizens, including: “Taking the law into your own hands can result in unintended consequences and may even lead to further harm or escalation of the situation.”
Retail theft from Walmart and other stores, as well as vehicles in the parking lot, is an ongoing problem at the central Vermont shopping mall. Last week, employees of Planet Fitness were seen running out of the gym in response to a situation in the parking lot. Minutes later observers saw Berlin police and the employees gathered around a woman – not an employee – lying in the grass with two dogs. The officer was instructing the crowd to disperse.
This isn’t the first recent instance of patrons trying to stop a retail thief.
On August 23, state troopers received a call about the theft of a purse at the Price Chopper located on Memorial Dr in St. Johnsbury. Troopers learned that a female grabbed the 56-year-old Lyndon victim’s purse from her arm and ran out of the store. She was pursued by patrons and the victim, but was able to enter into a 2002 BMW X5 bearing New Hampshire plates, which was being operated by another person. The purse contained credit cards, identification and a Samsung Galaxy. The alleged purse/car thief – Ryann Cram, 32, of St. Johnsbury – was later found at the home of another criminal suspect. She was arrested, cited, and released.
Last December, patrons of a Rutland store forcibly stopped an alleged shoplifter who was wheeling unpaid goods in a shopping cart out of the store, according to a VTDigger report.
Legal status of retail theft – Prosecution and subsequent punishment of retail thieves has become a sore spot among many Vermont retailers – and, apparently, store patrons. State law says “A person convicted of the offense of retail theft of merchandise having a retail value not in excess of $900 shall be punished by a fine of not more than $500.00 or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both. A person convicted of the offense of retail theft of merchandise having a retail value in excess of $900 shall be punished by a fine of not more than $1,000 or imprisonment for not more than 10 years, or both.”
In practice, the theft of less than $900 of goods from a store has become less likely to prosecute in a Vermont court. In some municipalities, including Burlington, police and prosecutors respond slowly or not at all to complaints of retail theft, as a Vermont Daily Chronicle report described. Retailers are resorting to locking the front door during working hours and installing additional after-hours security – including in one case loudspeakers warning trespassers caught on camera approaching the property to leave immediately.
A bill introduced by Rep. Martin LaLonde (D-South Burlington) in the 2019 Legislature raising to $2000 the value of the stolen merchandise for a felony retail theft did not pass. The bill also would have toughened punishment for organized retail theft.
Statewide problem – Retail theft is not just a Burlington, Rutland and Berlin problem. In Morristown – for one example – residents packed a community forum demanding solutions after a summertime crimewave saw more than half-a-dozen local businesses hit by thieves, the September 7 News & Citizen reports. Burglaries and retail thefts in Morrisville have become so prevalent this year that a police department announcement a week before was already outdated,” reporter Tommy Gardner wrote.
Police shared the following information at the Morristown forum:
Repeat offenders – Of the 256 people arrested for 590 total offenses from January 1, 2022 through September 2023, 109 accounted for three-quarters of the alleged offenses. One man was accused of 23 offenses during that time.
Drugs drive the crime – Police chief Jason Luneau the town has seen ‘huge increases’ in crack and fentanyl sales sourced from Hartford, CT and Lowell, MA, the News & Citizen reported. Whether the crimes are retail theft, burglary, or drug trafficking, they’re caused by the need for illegal drugs.
Retail theft is also a growing national problem. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, organized retail theft is now costing businesses $700,000 per billion in sales. In particular, out-of-state retail theft rings methodically go from store to store in an area. The pandemic-related backlog in the courts in Vermont nationwide is also contributing to thieves declining fear of prosecution.
Still, frustrated citizens shouldn’t take the law into their own hands, the Berlin Police Department says.
“The Berlin Police Department must advise against taking the law into your own hands,” the BPD press release about the incident stated. “While it can be frustrating to witness injustice or experience wrongdoing, it is important to remember that there are legal systems and authorities in place to handle these situations.
Taking the law into your own hands can result in unintended consequences and may even lead to further harm or escalation of the situation. Remember, respect for law and order helps to maintain a peaceful and just society.”
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