Local legislators, community members rally against petty theft CA State Senate bill

a photo of California state senator Nancy Skinner

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More than 100 people gathered in front of California State Sen. Nancy Skinner’s office Friday to rally against SB 82, which would change how some thefts are classified.

Under SB 82, thefts under $950 that may involve force or fear without serious injury or the use of a weapon would be classified as “petty theft in the first degree,” which is punishable up to one year in jail and/or a $1000 fine. The use of minimal force or fear during a petty theft can be convicted as a felony robbery and sentenced up to five years in prison under California’s current robbery statute.

Opponents of the bill are concerned that it will cause more robberies and attacks.

“One of the main effects and safety concerns from a prosecutor’s perspective is that SB 82 doesn’t take into account victims and why robberies are considered violent and why robberies have always been considered violent,” said Glenn Kim, a speaker at the event and Alameda County deputy district attorney. “There is a difference between petty theft and robbery. (With a robbery) you’ve got an individual that is going to be traumatized; that act in itself is a very violent act upon that victim.”

The rally was organized by a five-group coalition of the Business and Housing Network, the Chinese American Institute for Empowerment, the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, the Organization for Justice and Equality and the Silicon Valley Chinese Association.

Law enforcement leaders, business leaders, community educators, local legislators and victims’ families attended the rally, according to the main rally organizer and president of the Organization for Justice and Equality Frank Lee.

Lee said SB 82 “emboldens” people to rob others. He added that robberies are extremely prevalent in the Bay Area even when they are still considered felonies.

Additionally, “great bodily injury” does not always include getting punched in the face, which could result in a bloody nose or black eye, according to Lee. He said he believes this will leave women, senior citizens and minorities the most vulnerable.

Members of the state’s Penal Code Revision Committee crafted the bill to prevent prosecutors from possessing the ability to elevate petty theft charges into felony robberies, according to a press release by Skinner’s office. A person accused of making a verbal threat or bumping into a store employee while shoplifting could be elevated to a robbery with California’s current robbery statute.

The press release stated that the terms “force” and “fear” are frequently loosely interpreted. Data shows robbery charges are much more likely when the shoplifter is a person of color, experiencing a mental health crisis or has a developmental disability, the release added.

“California’s robbery statute hasn’t been updated since 1872,” Skinner said in the press release. “It’s time for us to make sure the punishment is proportionate to the crime committed.”

SB 82 was placed on hold for consideration by the Senate Appropriations Committee and will be reviewed again May 20. Lee urged rally supporters to continue writing to the Appropriations Committee to withdraw the bill and not put it back on the agenda.

Contact Serene Chang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_serenechang .