The break is finally over. The podcast is back. We’re also switching to an every-other-week release instead of every week, which should help smooth things out and keep us in your podcast feed on a more regular basis. And now with the housekeeping taken care of, let’s get on to today’s show about shoplifting shakedown letters and one effort to away with them.
On today’s episode, I talked with Ryan Sullivan, a Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He led a successful effort to repeal a state law in Nebraska that allowed retailers like Wal Mart and Target to send what were essentially shakedown letters to people accused of shoplifting. It’s not a law unique to Nebraska either. Up until the repeal, it was on the books in all fifty states. When the law was proposed it appeared to be well-intentioned enough. The original proponents asked state legislatures to essentially decriminalize shoplifting by letting them handle shoplifting claims civilly in house, as opposed to bringing people into the criminal justice system. There was even a provision that stated that there was no need for a criminal conviction to pursue the civil claim. Instead of going to court, a shoplifter – successful or not – would get pulled in to a loss prevention office and give the company their name, phone number, address, etc. and they’d receive a letter from a law office demanding somewhere between $200 and $500, on average, and that would be that.
The problem was that the law was widely abused. That provision that said there did not need to be criminal charges to pursue the financial claim? That was abused in two ways. One, is that people would get the letter demanding they pay up, or else, and also get an order to appear in court for violating a criminal statute for shoplifting. While that isn’t technically double jeopardy for shoplifting because the accused isn’t being criminally prosecuted twice for one crime, or attempted crime, it’s still a double punishment for it, which doesn’t jive morally. Worse is that the provision was also used to haul completely innocent people into loss prevention offices to get information that could be used to send a demand letter. Those were minors, young adults, and people of color who might not have even been trying to shoplift. They could’ve simply picked up a loaf of bread in the grocery section, walked over to the garden section, and because they looked like someone who would steal something, got pulled into this scheme.
Professor Sullivan goes into more depth than I care to here. In particular, he talks about some reform efforts in other states that were also successful in stemming the tide of these shakedown letters. Be sure to listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher Radio, or on your favorite podcast app.