Drug abuse blamed as Westmoreland shoplifting cases soar
Shoplifting cases have soared to record numbers in Westmoreland County as drug addicts swipe DVDs, power tools, razors and other merchandise they can quickly sell or barter for heroin and painkillers, judges and law enforcement officials say.
Westmoreland County Judge Alfred Bell said 25 percent of the county's 5,000 criminal cases per year involve retail theft. “It's the second-largest category of crime behind DUIs,” he said.
The case load consumes police officers' time and has clogged the court system at all levels with repeat offenders, officials said.
During a recent court session at the office of Hempfield District Judge Mark Mansour, 16 of the 20 cases involved retail theft. He had to postpone several hearings because the defendants were in drug rehab, he said.
“Sixty percent of my case load are retail thefts. It's an epidemic,” he said.
County Detective Tony Marcocci, a veteran narcotics investigator, said shoplifting has surged in tandem with drug abuse. “Ninety-five percent of retail thefts are drug-related,” he said.
Marcocci is part of a drug panel tasked with reducing the number of overdose deaths in Westmoreland. The record death toll caught the attention of Gary Tennis, secretary of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, who attended two drug forums in the county this year.
To reduce the number of nonviolent drug-related crimes, county officials want to establish a drug court to handle cases such as retail theft and car break-ins to curtail repeat offenders by dealing with their addiction through treatment and intensive monitoring rather than imprisonment.
Those who qualify for a drug court program — first-time, nonviolent offenders who are charged with a misdemeanor — are placed in treatment. They are tested for drugs frequently and are required to report regularly to a judge on their progress.
Because retail theft isn't considered a drug-related offense, Bell said, most judges don't require defendants to undergo urine testing that could lead to referral to a treatment program. He noted that offenders don't undergo an evaluation process as drunken drivers are.
“I get a lot of three-time retail thieves who are opiate addicts,” Bell said. “As soon as they get on probation, they go out and steal again.”
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said retail theft has become a significant drug-related crime “in this county or in any county.”
Peck said drug users frequently travel Routes 30 and 22 into Allegheny County to buy heroin, stopping at stores along the way to steal merchandise.
“They steal from family. Then they steal from friends. Then they turn to retail stores,” Marcocci said.
The detective said a favorite ploy of addicts is to steal an item worth less than $100, because many stores don't require a receipt for items under that value, and exchange it for a gift card.
Sgt. Jeffrey Bouldin of North Huntingdon police said thieves typically sell the gift cards to others or to pawn shops.
“They'll take a $200 gift card and take $100 for it,” he said.
Statewide, more than 40,000 cases of retail theft were reported in 2012, costing stores nearly $9 million, according to state police crime statistics.
Mansour, whose district includes clusters of large retail stores, said the Hempfield Wal-Mart is a prime target. “Wal-Mart is a killer,” he said.
Bouldin said North Huntingdon police have arrested as many as four suspects a day at the Wal-Mart off Route 30. “Any municipality that has a Wal-Mart is getting slammed,” he said.
Since 2011, about 1,400 — nearly one-third — of the more than 4,100 retail theft cases in Westmoreland County occurred at the five Wal-Mart stores. The top targets were chain stores including Kmart, Target and Kohl's; drugstores; supermarkets; and discount stores along Interstate 70 and the Route 22, 30 and 51 corridors, records show.
Kristi Volke, a spokeswoman for Target in Baltimore, said the company had no information on whether store thefts are associated with drug addiction. No one at corporate offices of Wal-Mart, Kmart and Kohl's responded to requests for comment.
The district attorney said judges are at the “end of the rope” in dealing with repeat offenders and see no alternative but prison.
“At least with treatment, you get follow-up,” Peck said.
The penalties for retail theft are based on the value of the merchandise stolen.
• A first-time offender who steals merchandise worth less than $150 faces as many as 90 days in jail and a fine for the misdemeanor, according to the state crimes code. Most cases end in probation or in a diversionary program.
• A person with a prior conviction for retail theft who steals items worth less than $150 faces as many as two years in jail for a first-degree misdemeanor.
• If the value exceeds $2,000, the person faces a third-degree felony and a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
The Pennsylvania Retailers Association is supporting House Bill 1000, introduced this year, which would lower the financial threshold for a felony from $2,000 to $1,000.
But shoplifters don't face anywhere near that amount of time in jail, according to the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission.
The average sentence for a felony conviction for retail theft is two to three months in prison or six months' probation, according to the commission.
Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.