“Flash mob felony” bill heard in Senate Law and Justice Committee

OLYMPIASB 5632, a bill to strengthen penalties for those who use electronic communications to conspire to commit retail theft, was heard in the Senate Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday. Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, is the prime sponsor.

At the hearing, Mark Johnson, the vice president of the Washington Retail Association, testified of incidents in which small stores have been overwhelmed by dozens of people, organized via social media, to commit mass robbery. In one Federal Way case in August 2014, 40 people robbed a 7-11, resulting in thousands of dollars in losses. Big-box stores have also been targeted.

“Flash mob criminals use their sheer numbers to bully clerks and plunder the property of others,” O’Ban said. “If you’re involved in a flash mob crime, you’re not just stealing one item, you’re aiding in a larger theft. It’s time the punishment reflected that reality.”

SB 5632 would create an additional definition of the crime of organized retail theft. An individual would be guilty of organized retail theft if he or she participates in the theft of retail property with no fewer than 6 accomplices, when that property has a cumulative value of at least $750, and the thief makes or receives at least one electronic communication seeking participation in that theft. The first offense of this type would be a gross misdemeanor and any subsequent theft of this type would be a Class C felony.

“There’s no excuse for using social media to create a mini-riot,” said O’Ban. “It’s not a game. It’s the theft and destruction of property that belongs to hard-working people.”

SB 5632 is identical to SB 5037, which passed the Senate last year on a bi-partisan vote of 29-19, but did not receive a vote in the House.