Local lawmaker leads effort to establish felony penalties for repeated theft; business owners voice support

    One of the first pieces of legislation Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon signed into law this year came from a Fremont County lawmaker.

    Wyoming Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, was the main sponsor of House Bill 112, which establishes a felony penalty for people found guilty of five or more separate theft offenses.

    “That means somebody, four times, has been caught, has gone in front of a court, (and) has been convicted,” Oakley said when she presented the bill to the House Judiciary Committee in January. “Clearly, deterrence didn’t work. So this puts a tool (in place) that can be used to say, ‘Enough.’”


    ‘Ribeye ring’

    Oakley pointed to people in her community who have “double digit” theft offenses on their record, meaning they are “going in and out of county jail – which is expensive, and there’s (no) programming, classes, anything like that.”

    “That doesn’t exist in the county jail,” Oakley said. “If we’re going to get anywhere to improve things, that works better via felony too.”

    Others found guilty of theft are involved in more “sophisticated” operations, however, Oakley said, referring, for example, to what she called the “ribeye ring:” people in Fremont County who steal large quantities of meat from local stores and re-sell them elsewhere.

    “There’s nothing that can be done to hold somebody more accountable for this repeated, serial crime,” Oakley said.


    Felony burglary

    Prosecutors have been able to charge suspects with felony burglary if they are caught shoplifting at a store they’ve been trespassed from previously, Oakley noted, responding to a question from the committee.

    She called it a “creative charging” strategy that local prosecutors have utilized “a couple of times – basically since (HB 112) doesn’t exist.”

    “We have gotten convictions on that, so that is a tool that we can use,” Oakley said. “But I think that’s an argument why (HB 112) should exist. … I think that shows the necessity of this law.”


    Local business support

    Two Fremont County business owners spoke in support of HB 112 during the committee meeting: Michelle Motherway of Lander and Mike Bailey of Riverton.

    Motherway thanked Oakley for bringing the bill, which she hoped would help address the growing number of theft “rings” she has observed at her store.

    “We talk about theft as taking candy, or because someone’s hungry, (but) we’re not talking about … those individuals,” Motherway said. “Our court system works well for those people that are the one-time, take a Chapstick or whatever. (And we) feed those people that are hungry that do come in. … You don’t ever refuse to feed someone that’s hungry, and we believe in that practice, and we practice that.”


    The problem HB 112 will address, Motherway said, is more akin to “organized crime,” where groups of three to five people come to the store together to steal hundreds of dollars in items that they later re-sell.

    If those suspects are apprehended and charged with shoplifting, she said, “they just pay the fee, and there’s no consequences.”

    “(That) drastically affects us,” Motherway said, noting that financial losses due to theft, at her business and others, have a “trickle-down effect,” impacting everything from employee bonuses to building upgrades and local donations.

    “To turn this into a felony (gives the law) just a little bit more teeth and would really help our community.”

    Bailey said he faces “very similar issues” at his businesses, where “we catch people doing theft … habitually.”

    “A lot of times it’s relatively minor,” he said. “But (it) ends up costing us huge in the long run. … It would be a huge help if we could strengthen this law by making the fifth offense a felony.”

    Prosecutorial discretion

    When HB 112 came up on the floor of the Wyoming House of Representatives, some legislators expressed concern that the law might be used to prosecute youthful offenders, for example, who had been caught several times stealing low-cost items like candy bars or even cell phones.

    But Oakley assured them that the felony provision would only take effect “if the prosecutor has chosen to prosecute under (that) subsection.”

    “There is still full discretion,” she said. “It might very well happen that somebody has 10 previous offenses but it’s a small enough shoplifting charge that you choose not to take it to the felony court. … You would just charge it under a misdemeanor.”

    She also emphasized that the bill was not designed to target small-scale shoplifting committed by, for instance, poverty-stricken individuals in need of food.

    “This will probably be used for very significant, often organized, big crime (that) is affecting our retail stores,” she said. “They’re asking for some help.”

    ‘A better way’

    All of Fremont County’s local legislators voted in favor of HB 112 except for Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, who supported the bill as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee but said he was having “a little bit of trouble” with the legislation when it reached the floor of the Senate.

    “It’s a very big step to go up to a 10-year felony for theft,” Case said. “Theft is a problem in my community, (and) I agree that the jail time doesn’t seem to be a deterrent for these repeat offenders. But I’m kind of searching for a better way.”

    Gordon’s first round of bill-signings included two other pieces of legislation with local sponsors, including another from Oakley – House Bill 111 – and House Bill 69, which was sponsored by Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander.


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