Kansas attorney general seeks authority to take on prosecution of organized retail crime

Merchants seek jurisdictional reform to battle criminals moving county to county

By: - March 21, 2023 9:25 am

Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach joined a Home Depot executive to urge the Kansas House to adopt a bill passed by the Kansas Senate to expand his prosecutorial power to tackle organized retail theft rings. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Home Depot executive Celinda Gonzalez wants Kansas to enact a law granting the state attorney general authority to pursue organized criminals making retail stores the hub of large-scale theft rings.

She said the home improvement company operated 16 stores with 3,300 employees in Kansas with an annual economic impact of $1.1 billion, but the threat of organized retail crime required new tools of law enforcement. She said Kansas needed to approve Senate Bill 442, which would provide Attorney General Kris Kobach with the power to prosecute cases of multi-county theft of retail merchandise for resale on the black market.

“To be clear, organized retail crime is not petty shoplifting,” Gonzalez said. “It is theft for greed, not theft for need. These are sophisticated criminals that recruit individuals to steal from retailers, big and small, and then resell the stolen goods to fund more serious crimes.”

She said these criminal organizations often would travel across multiple counties in a coordinated effort. Adding a layer of prosecutorial authority to the attorney general’s office would close a jurisdictional loophole in state law that helped the criminal groups to flourish.

Under Senate Bill 244, the attorney general would have concurrent authority with a county or district attorney to prosecute any crime part of an alleged course of criminal conduct occurring in two or more counties. Current Kansas law limited the attorney general to prosecuting cases in which the offender was an officer or employee of a city or county.

Attorney General Kris Kobach appealed Monday to the House Judiciary Committee to echo the Kansas Senate, which passed the bill 35-3. He said the multi-jurisdictional nature of these crimes hampered the ability of law enforcement to properly charge and penalize people for retail theft.

“Unlike shoplifting where an individual steals for personal use, organized retail crime often involves a criminal enterprise with multiple people stealing multiple items from multiple stores in multiple jurisdictions and then selling the stolen good,” Kobach said. “Many retailers now forgo attempting to stop thieves in the act, fearing violence in their stores that could hurt customers and their employees.”

He said it led to bizarre scenes in which criminals simply loaded shopping carts and headed for the store exit without paying. The haul would be tossed into a truck or van and the thieves would head to the next big-box store in a neighboring county, Kobach said.

Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican who also works as a consultant to Kobach, said he introduced the bill on behalf of the attorney general.

He said Buy Safe America reported Kansas was among the top 10 states hit hardest by organized retail crime. The National Retail Federation, or NRF, indicated U.S. retailers saw a 26.5% increase in incidents of organized retail crime in 2021.

“The loss of goods and increased prices consumers face as a result are only a small part of the challenge,” Claeys said. “Eight in 10 retailers surveyed for that NRF reported that the violence and aggression associated with ORC incidents also increased year-over-year.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.