Michigan lawmakers want to crack down on Amazon package pilfering

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Items in "Amazon Prime" branded packaging are seen at the Amazon Fulfillment Centre on November 14, 2018 in Hemel Hempstead, England.

Lansing — Criminals who repeatedly steal mail or Amazon shipments could be subject to tougher penalties in Michigan under new legislation designed to discourage identity theft and package pilfering from porches.

With internet shopping becoming a way of life for many residents, officials say more than 17,000 Amazon packages went missing in Michigan between 2017 and 2018. They cite another 1,900 allegations of mail theft.  

The Michigan Senate is expected to vote Thursday on a two-bill package that would create new felony punishments for repeated mail or package theft. An initial offense would remain a misdemeanor, but second or third offense could result in up to five or ten years in prison.

“It is something that is so needed,” said Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, a lead sponsor on legislation introduced with Sen. Pete Lucido, R-Shelby Township. The proposal would "put some teeth" into state law and make it easier to prosecute suspected mail theft, Runestad said. 

Under current law, “you can steal checks out of the mail box and it’s not even larceny because the check has no value unless it’s cashed,” he told The Detroit News.

As the bill advanced through committee, Runestad, investigators and prosecutors said mail theft is on the rise in Michigan and has been a factor in several identity theft cases. While it is a federal crime, mail theft is rarely prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which typically only pursues larger cases.

“Stealing mail is not the same things as stealing other property,” Runestad said, noting “the contents may disclose personal information or financial information that can easily be exploited.”

The legislation is expected to win bipartisan support in the Senate, where Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, signed on as a co-sponsor. Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy’s office have also vouched for the plan.

Of the 17,000 suspected Amazon package thefts in Michigan between 2017 and 2018, 935 occurred in Oakland County, Bouchard said in a letter to lawmakers.

“With the rise of delivery services both through the United States Postal Service and privately owned companies, theft continues to rise, and criminals are getting more sophisticated in their tactics,” the sheriff said. “Having the ability to enforce mail theft penalties will be helpful for both law enforcement and victims of this type of crime.”

While mail thieves can be charged with other crimes if they cash stolen checks or use stolen credit cards, that is not always possible, Dennis Doherty of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office said in a public hearing on the bill.

In one instance, Doherty said, a mail carrier was caught throwing away mail because he didn’t want to deliver it. Because it would be hard to prove any financial loss to victims, federal prosecutors didn’t want to take up the case, so it was bumped to the county.

“We didn’t have a statute to prosecute them, and it’s almost hard to believe,” Doherty said.

Most mail thieves are either looking for quick money or are developing a longer-term identity theft scheme, said Carla Menendez of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which investigates external crimes related to the federal mail system.

Between October 2018 and early February, residents reported more than 5,000 missing Amazon packages, 140 stolen checks, 63 missing prescriptions and nearly 300 stolen credit cards — and those are just complaints filed with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Menendez said.

In one case she investigated, Menendez said a ring leader used a team of “mules” to steal incoming mail from several businesses on the weekend when owners were not there. Prosecutors charged five suspects with identity theft as well as uttering and publishing by cashing a check.

“They weren’t charged with the mail theft,” Menendez said, telling lawmakers that a new Michigan statute could allow for multiple charges in similar crimes. “We have to get creative, basically, when people are stealing mail.”

As introduced, the legislation would have created a five-year felony for first-time mail theft, but lawmakers scaled back the proposed penalty after feedback from Bouchard and other officials who suggested a more “reasonable” approach.

The revised legislation creates a new felony class for second and subsequent mail theft convictions. It also establishes an "affirmative defense" for suspects who say they took or moved mail with permission or to prevent another crime.

“I think it’s going to pass unanimously,” Runestad said. “I would be surprised if it didn’t.”