On July 1, a new law will crack down on organized retail crime in Tennessee.
The law modernizes the definition of theft to include evading or disabling alarm systems or store surveillance cameras. It also sets a $300 minimum fine for a conviction and allows authorities to charge repeat offenders with a felony after five offenses within a two year period.
“The modern day criminal has become very creative in the way that they look to commit fraud or look to steal when they go into retailers,” said state Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville), who sponsored the bill.
But Knox County Sheriff’s Office’s Chief of Administration Lee Tramel said not only have tactics changed, so have motives.
"The vast majority of people that are shoplifting are opiate addicts,” he said. “They'll steal, go do a [merchandise] return, get a gift card, sell it for cash and then get some heroin or a pill."
The sheriff's office has linked 418 drug addicts to more than 5,100 transactions of stolen goods between 2014 and 2017. Tramel said that data suggests many addicted shoplifters are repeat offenders.
"They're not stealing once per day. These folks need their drug many, many times per day," he said.
Tramel said the department is working to turn addicts into informants, with the goal of learning more about shoplifters and their evolving tactics. He said lately, informants have indicated many shoplifters are moving into other areas outside of Knox County to avoid prosecution.
"We're working this like a drug case," he said. “How you climb a ladder with drugs, it’s the same way we’re working this Retail Crime Unit.”
The Knox County Sheriff’s Office Organized Retail Theft Unit began in 2012 to help prevent shoplifting during the holidays, and since has grown to a full-time unit.
So far in 2017, the unit has made 265 shoplifting arrests. Within the last several months, it recovered more than $400,000 in stolen goods from three businesses.
Zachary said Knoxville is the number one city in the nation per capita for gift card theft and abuse.
“[Tennessee] is one of only 17 states in the nation that did not have any organized retail crime legislation on the books,” Zachary said.