Supermarket shoplifting cases keep Detroit court busy

36th District Court Judge Kenneth J. King looks on his calendar to schedule a retail fraud case for a jury trial after the defendant rejected a plea deal from prosecutor, March 21.

Just about every Thursday, one or more defendants accused of shoplifting from the Meijer store in one of Detroit's newest shopping centers appear before Judge Kenneth King to explain their actions and, sometimes, accept their punishment.

The grocery theft cases are a regular part of King's docket in 36th District Court.

One recent Thursday, King passed judgment on a young woman who stole $200 in crab legs from the store at Woodward and Eight Mile and a man who stole meat from the store's deli, plus liquor to go along with his meal. 

A week later, King heard more shoplifting cases, including one in which defendant Jimmy Hayes asked the judge to lock him up, saying he couldn't help himself from purloining items from the local retailer.

"I don't want to go back to the same thing,"  Hayes, 37, told King. "It's wasting your time and my time."

The judge obliged, sentencing Hayes to a year in the Wayne County Jail.

As the defendant was led away, the judge offered this advice on how to avoid temptation while shopping: "Keep your hands in your pocket."

In a court that deals with rape, murder and other violent crimes, supermarket scofflaws might seem like a low priority. But King takes the cases seriously. To him, shoplifting "is a serious problem," which he says "is a nuisance to the people who want to do business in the city of Detroit."

Retail fraud is a steady and persistent crime in Michigan: According to state figures, 1,907 cases of first-degree retail fraud were reported in 2018, up from 1,743 five years ago.

Including all categories of retail fraud, the state's courts reported 6,561 criminal cases last year, compared with 6,579 in 2014. 

Such cases help keep King's and other courts busy.

The Meijer store at Woodward and Eight Mile.

One of the most recent cases in 36th District Court involved charges against Detroit resident Ronald Walker, who pleaded guilty April 23 to stealing crab legs and shrimp from Meijer nine days earlier.

Walker, who tried to take the pricey seafood without paying in the self-checkout lane, was arrested and convicted of third-degree retail fraud. He could receive up to 93 days in prison when he is sentenced June 4 on the misdemeanor charge.

In another recent case, a man appeared before King, charged with stealing liquor from Meijer. As part of a plea deal, the judge ordered the defendant to undergo drug testing twice a month and attend a theft awareness class once he is released on probation.

He also told the suspect to stay away from the supermarket.

"People at Meijer know you," King told him.  "I don't even want you in the parking lot."

King cautions that each case has to be looked at individually. He said mental health issues, poverty and drug habits can lead people to rob grocery stores. 

In other cases, some grocery shoplifters just steal out of greed. Those defendants are dealt with "harshly," the judge said.

The judge sends some offenders to a class aimed at addressing why they shoplift and helping them to avoid offending again.

"I typically tailor my sentences to the needs of the defendants," King said. "Usually in my theft-related cases, I send defendants to a theft awareness class. Sometimes, however, the theft may be for some other reason like drug addiction, so I will center my sentence around meeting those needs: outpatient treatment, drug counseling, etc."

For retailers, police and courts, shoplifting is widespread and costly. 

Losses from grocery stores and other retailers are estimated to be in the billions. From the "five-finger discount" types of shoplifting to organized groups, retail industry officials say the loss of merchandise and other costs associated with shoplifting is hitting retailers hard.

For retailers, police and courts, shoplifting is widespread and costly.

Barbara Staib, director of development and communications for the National Association For Shoplifting Prevention, said 27 million Americans commit retail fraud, and most of them are regular people who steal out of impulse.

"Everyone is tempted into getting something for nothing," she said, adding that retailers, particularly supermarkets, have to maintain a "very delicate balance" in policing their stores.

She said retailers walk a fine line in "wasting taxpayers' resources" on relatively minor theft cases, while prosecutors are moving toward a "de facto decriminalization" of misdemeanor shoplifting offenses, employing diversionary programs such as theft awareness classes instead of jail time. 

Staib's organization offers such classes in Detroit and has seen positive results.

Staib said shoplifting convicts who take the courses have a 5% rate of stealing again compared with a nearly 40% rate among those who don't.

"They need to learn why I don't want to shoplift," she said.

To try to curb losses from shoplifting, some supermarkets and other retailers have turned to technology.

Meijer officials could not be reached to discuss their anti-theft efforts. Other grocers, such as Kroger, are fighting back against theft from their aisles by installing in-store surveillance cameras. Shoppers are recorded in real-time as they reach for that jar of relish or put a box of pasta in their shopping carts.

 "Our company works closely with local law enforcement to ensure the safety of our associates and customers ..." the chain said in a statement released by spokeswoman Rachel Hurst. "To support safety, we do have cameras in all Kroger locations."

Hurst added there's no rhyme or reason to what grocery shoplifters try to steal. "High-theft items are a range of prices and value, as every area has its own challenges."

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