Florida Petty Thefts Treated as Felonies; Bill to Change That Fails

It’s hard for some folks to believe that non-violent, small-time, petty theft can land people in a Florida prison for years. But it happens all the time, both because of Florida’s low felony theft threshold and minimum mandatory penalties for those convicted of prior offenses.criminal defense lawyer

Two bills that had been advancing through the Florida legislature earlier this year sought to address it. Both, however, have since been defeated, meaning at least this year, the Sunshine State won’t be joining the ranks of a growing number of states that are increasing the dollar amount threshold for felony theft charges (the dollar amount at which a theft crime becomes a felony instead of a misdemeanor).

Lowest Felony Theft Threshold in the Country

In fact, Florida has the second-lowest felony theft threshold in the country – just $300, per F.S. 812.014. Someone may end up in prison for stealing even less than that if they have prior convictions or are on probation/parole. Other states, on average, have a felony theft threshold of somewhere between $1,000 and $2,500. Plus, many don’t have the punitive provision that Florida has, wherein the third petty theft is an automatic felony charge.

As Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorneys can explain, felonies, unlike misdemeanors, can follow a person around for life, impacting one’s opportunities for work, school, place of residence or getting a loan. And with the punitive provision, crimes that would normally warrant a fine in other states can have individuals facing up to five years in prison.

Florida’s felony theft law hasn’t been updated since 1986. There was a bipartisan effort this year to change this, in recognition of the fact that these low felony thresholds have little if any impact on theft crimes – and  convictions can ruin lives. One of those measures,  SB 7072, would have heightened the felony threshold to $750. Another, HB 589, would have raised it to $1,000. Both measures died in committee.

More than 600 Floridians are serving prison for petty theft, according to Reason Magazine.

Cases Illustrating Harsh Reality of Low Felony Theft Threshold

The outcome of those bills was troubling given that lawmakers across the political spectrum recognize that $300 is far too low – and the consequences of a felony – which can follow a person for life – are far too severe. Among the cases that underscore this point and even made headlines in recent years:

  • An 18-year-old teen in Fort Myers with autism spectrum disorder allegedly snatched an iPhone off the counter at a fast food restaurant. He was charged with a felony because the cost of an iPhone easily exceeds the $300 threshold. His mother managed to cobble together enough money to hire a criminal defense lawyer, who ultimately helped get the charges reduced to a misdemeanor. Had the defense lawyer not managed to do that, the teen faced up to five years in prison, a $5,00 fine and removal from the low-income housing where he lived – not to mention lifelong label of felony offender and loss of voting rights.
  • A 70-year-old man is serving three years in prison for stealing less than $45 worth of goods – a bag of coffee and three bags of nuts. Two prior theft convictions in the early 1990s meant this was an automatic felony. According to news reports, the man was homeless.A mother-of-three is serving a two-year sentence for allegedly stealing a six-pack of wine coolers from a large box store. Because it was her third theft conviction, it became an automatic felony. Her children were sent to live in foster care.

The greatest opposition to increasing the threshold? Large retail corporations like Home Depot and Wal-Mart, with a spokesman for a powerful lobbyist group say the lower threshold helps to address repeat organized retail theft offenders. Florida stores reportedly lost nearly $70 million due to retail theft last year.

Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:

The Effects of Changing Felony Theft Thresholds, April 12, 2017, PEW Research Centers