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The California State Capitol. (iStockphoto)
The California State Capitol. (iStockphoto)
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The surge in retail theft has unexpectedly become Sacramento’s hottest political issue. Last week, Democratic lawmakers attempted to place a measure on the ballot to compete with a tougher anti-crime measure backed by district attorneys and retail stores. After contentious negotiations brought unwanted publicity, Gov. Gavin ɫ̳om and his allies pulled their alternative measure.

The Legislature is, however, moving forward a package of anti-theft bills designed to win back public confidence and address the theft issue. The DA-backed initiative campaign would gut sections of Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot initiative that rolled back penalties for some lower-level crimes. The Democratic leadership opposes that effort.

The Democratic proposals overall reflect a measured attempt to toughen up theft laws without obliterating Prop. 47. The most significant bill will make it easier for prosecutors to “aggregate” charges so that thieves who rob different stores can be charged with a felony even if they stole less than the $950 threshold at each one.

But one bill takes a misguided approach that imposes huge burdens on legitimate businesses. Senate Bill 1144 tries to combat retail theft by requiring “high-volume” sellers to provide their personal bank-account, license and tax information to online marketplaces to assure that they are not selling stolen merchandise. But the definition of high volume is so imprecise that, essentially, the online marketplaces’ “only way to comply … would be to assume every single seller” fits that definition, according to an opposition letter from two tech-industry associations. Many sellers of household items will understandably be reluctant to provide that information.

Democrats bungled their approach to this entire issue. In addition to their club-footed attempt to qualify an alternative measure, they tried (but backpedaled) to encumber their bill package with “poison pill” amendments that would have killed their bills if the initiative passed. It mainly convinced people they aren’t serious about crime.

Nevertheless, Democrats can redeem themselves by amending SB 1144, passing the package without cynical amendments and letting voters have their say on the ballot initiative.

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