Kwame Raoul

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul appeared with the president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association on Feb. 7 to outline a proposed legislative package taking aim at organized retail crime.

Warning of “criminal rings” and “illicit trade,” Raoul, appearing with IRMA President Rob Karr, differentiated what he referred to as “organized retail crime” and the types of retail theft committed by “ragtag, low-level offenders.”

The legislative package addressing organized retail crime has not yet been drafted. But Raoul and Karr said it will aim to define organized retail crime in law, allowing prosecutors greater leeway to charge those participating in it, while also holding online marketplaces accountable and aiming to provide more state funding to address organized retail crime.

“Organized retail crime is not like your customary retail theft, and our laws should not treat them as such,” Raoul said. “These crimes are perpetrated by sophisticated criminal enterprises coordinating the thefts of many items of high value. Those items are often resold, and the funds are often used to fund drug trafficking and human trafficking.”

While high-profile smash-and-grab burglaries reported along Chicago Mag Mile and at high-end retail stores elsewhere, the phenomenon has had an impact locally in recent years.

On Dec. 7-8, a burglary crew twice forced its way into North Riverside Park Mall and stole about $5,000 in merchandise from a store there before eluding police during a high-speed chase. Police later learned the same crew was involved in a liquor store burglary on Dec. 8 in Chicago.

In late January, burglary crews broke into two North Riverside establishments to steal thousands in cash from ATMs serving the business’ video gambling terminals.

In 2018 and 2019, burglary crews conducted ATM smash-and-grabs at liquor stores and convenience stores in Riverside and Brookfield. Other burglary crews have stolen vehicles from North Riverside car dealerships, once using a stolen car to ram the dealership gate in order to allow other vehicles an exit route.

Karr said organized retail theft is not a victimless crime.

“While the [Magnificent Mile in downtown Chicago] and high-end stores have captured headlines, neighborhoods and retail corners throughout the state have been victims,” he said. “But it isn’t just faceless stores that are victims, either.”

Clerks who fear coming to work, consumers who worry about visiting stores, commuters and tourists who worry about downtown shopping, the hospitality industry which relies upon visitors, and anyone seeking economic development are all victims, he said, as are Illinois taxpayers, who rely on retail as the second largest generator of tax revenue.

“In my nearly three decades involved with retail, this is the first time that safety and crime has been one of the top two concerns as stores decide whether to locate or keep stores open,” Karr said.

Raoul touted an organized retail crime task force overseen by his office, a public-private collaboration that includes retailers, online marketplaces, law enforcement agencies and state’s attorneys. Its first major bust was announced in early December, when over $1 million of stolen goods were recovered after an unrelated weapons arrest in Chicago.

But law enforcement alone can’t stop organized retail crime, Raoul said. The effort must also include retailers, online retailer platforms and lawmakers.

According to a news release, in the new proposal, prosecutors would be given wider discretion to bring charges regardless of where the crime takes place, meaning if the conspiracy, theft, and selling all occurred in different jurisdictions, each jurisdiction would have the ability to prosecute the entire crime.

The attorney general would also have the ability to prosecute via a statewide grand jury.

Online third-party sellers would be required to verify the identity of high-volume sellers using bank account numbers, taxpayer IDs or other information, and to suspend sellers for non-compliance.

The plan would also require the courts to give retail crime theft victims seven days’ notice of a court hearing.

The proposal also calls for an unspecified amount of funding, according to a news release, to create new positions in the attorney general’s office and various state’s attorney offices to investigate and prosecute retail theft and illicit trade.

Bob Uphues contributed to this report.