Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach appears April 12, 2023, at the Kansas Reflector office in downtown Topeka for a podcast recording. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Attorney General Kris Kobach testified about Kansas retail theft Tuesday in Washington, D.C., during a U.S. House Subcommittee on Crime and Federal Government Surveillance hearing.
Kobach claimed Kansas is in the top 10 states hit by organized retail crime in terms of money lost. He highlighted cases such as the owner of a Kansas City, Missouri, pawn shop pleading guilty in March to gathering items stolen from retailers and reselling them online.
“You typically see box stores being hit two to three times per week,” Kobach said. “The fence at the center is usually, in Kansas, is usually a pawnshop. But oftentimes, it’s just a warehouse that’s used to move the goods. Almost all of the products are sold online.”
A fence acts as a middleman in black market sales by knowingly purchasing stolen items and reselling them.
The hearing about a rise in organized retail crime and the threat to public safety began with an opening statement Rep. Andy Biggs, chairman of the subcommittee and an Arizona Republican, who said he was disappointed he needed to hold the hearing.
“We are coddling criminals and (fanning) the flames of this problem, and it’s open season on our stores, and criminal syndicates are taking advantage,” Biggs said.
Kobach listed factors in the legal system that worsen the problem, including a lack of prosecutorial capacity, the threshold amount that must be stolen in order to prosecute the theft, investigative capacity, bail being set too low and the speed at which suspects are released.
“I just want to end with a quick story,” Kobach said. “I went into a Walgreens recently and talked to a clerk, and her store is hit two, three times a day, and I asked her what she does. And she said, well, she finally decided to start following the boosters through the store, heckling them and harassing them, against store policy. I asked her why she did that, and she said because she can’t stand what’s happening to the reputation of her store in her neighborhood. She’s fighting to preserve our culture where the rule of law is intact.”
Wisconsin Republican Rep. Thomas Tiffany asked Kobach if he believed the lawlessness of the country and the “defund the police” movement contributed to the problem.
Defunding the police was a concept discussed after the death of George Floyd in 2020. It has been mischaracterized by opponents of police reform.
“I do, sir,” Kobach said. “And there’s, at the end of my comments I briefly noted on this, is there’s a cultural element here, too. It’s a lack of respect for the rule of law. And it gets to a point in certain areas where people feel like shoplifting is accepted, or at least tolerated, or nothing’s being done about it.”
Kobach said there are online communities sharing strategies about theft and there is a culture accepting the crime.
John Milhiser, a former U.S. attorney, and John Flynn, president of the National District Attorneys Association, also spoke about organized retail crime at the hearing.
Lorie Mohs testified as well. Her son, Blake Mohs, died in April during the theft of a phone charger from the California Home Depot where he worked as a guard.
The witnesses were all asked by members of the committee about how to combat theft and the effect it has on families.
Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean asked Mohs to tell more about her son.
“We are very, very sorry, and you just have my commitment that we will do everything possible to get our arms around this incredible problem,” Dean said. “Retail theft, obviously very serious, but violent crime and gun deaths in this country, when we lose 45, 46, 47,000 people to gun violence every single year to this country. And we have a party that, we tried to have a hearing last week, and no one on the other side of the aisle would give us a hearing room so that victims like you, survivors like you, could speak. We had to go over to the Senate’s side, so very interested in retail crime, not very interested in saving lives.”
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