Stealing a phone in Florida can be a life-changing felony. Big retail companies want to keep it that way.

Theft charges become a felony in Florida if the value of what’s stolen is at least $300. That’s the second-lowest amount in the nation, and hasn’t changed since 1986.
Pinellas Park Police Corporal Michael Linquist walks back to his cruiser after loading two shoplifters into a prisoner transport van in 2015. [ZACHARY SAMPSON   |   Times]
Pinellas Park Police Corporal Michael Linquist walks back to his cruiser after loading two shoplifters into a prisoner transport van in 2015. [ZACHARY SAMPSON | Times]
Published April 2, 2019|Updated April 2, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — Frederick Crumbly was 18 when he saw an iPhone sitting on the counter at a McDonald’s and decided to take it with him. Police arrested him the next day at his Fort Myers home — and charged him with a felony.

A felony conviction would have meant his family would no longer be allowed to live in low-income housing and he would have to notify employers of his crime for the rest of his life.

“It was an ordeal,” recalled his mother, Judy Crumbly, who owns her own housekeeping business and scraped together enough money to hire a lawyer and get Frederick’s charges lowered to a misdemeanor. He was later diagnosed with being on the autism spectrum, a factor his mother said prevented him from fully understanding why picking up a cell phone had led to this nightmare.

“His life would be so different had I not had the ability to obtain the attorney.”

In Florida, theft charges become a felony if the value of what’s stolen is at least $300. That’s the second-lowest amount in the nation, and hasn’t changed since 1986. While other states have raised their “felony thresholds” to keep up with inflation or to try to dole out fewer felonies for theft. Many states’ thresholds hover around $1,000 or $1,500. Texas’ is $2,500.

“He missed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s — all these holidays he was in jail over a cell phone,” Judy said.

But this year, lawmakers from both parties are behind bills that would substantially raise Florida’s felony threshold. Even Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been mostly mum about his philosophy on criminal justice reform, has said he would support upping the amount.

Yet two bills in the House and Senate propose different amounts for the threshold: $1,000 and $750, respectively — one of a few differences in the bills that lawmakers will need to reconcile if the bill is to become law.

State Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, who sponsored the House version, said he’s going to stand firm on the higher amount, in part because of the cost of smart phones.

“We never want to condone theft,” Donalds said. But “what we are trying to do is make sure the punishment for the theft is actually suitable in today’s world.”

Yet while bipartisan support for raising the threshold has grown, one powerful lobbying group has stood as a holdout against it.

The Florida Retail Federation, which counts among its members some of the state’s biggest heavy-hitters like Walmart, Disney and Publix, says on its website that it opposes raising the felony threshold. Last year, in a 2018 session roundup of the group’s priorities, the federation wrote that it “fought all session to not give criminals a cost of living increase on the backs of retailers,” and were successful in keeping the threshold at $300.

This year, the federation has said it is willing to work with a $750 threshold, but is opposed to anything higher. The group is also advocating for an additional change in the Senate version of the bill. It wants to expand the length of time during which different theft amounts can be added together for a single charge, from 48 hours to 90 days.

“The idea that theft over a 90-day period could be combined to find someone guilty of committing a felony simply seems misguided,” said Raymer Maguire, who manages the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida’s criminal justice campaign. “A lot of this comes from the retail federation which likes to … scare legislators into sticking with the ‘tough on crime’ mentality that has not reduced crime across our state but has led to mass incarceration.”

Still, Maguire added, the federation’s willingness to accept raising the threshold to $750 “is major step forward.”

TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: Walmart. Thousands of police calls. You paid the bill.

The federation’s clout is mighty. In the past five years, it has donated nearly $3 million to various lawmakers and political committees. If donations from the companies that are part of the federation are included, total donations rise to about $46.5 million in the past five years alone, according to a Times/Herald analysis of campaign finance reports.

But James Miller, senior director for external affairs for the federation, said the group has been unfairly cast as a villain. He said its position against the $1,000 threshold is based on protecting retailers from organized retail thieves who repeatedly steal in smaller increments that add up to be huge losses for stores.

“We’ve been painted as draconian as if we want to punish people for life for stealing small things,” he said. “Our goal is to punish organized retail crime rings, the people that steal thousands and millions of dollars from our member retailers.”

There was no change in the property crime rates in those states that raised their felony thresholds compared to states that didn’t, according to a study from Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonpartisan research group.

It’s not just progressive groups that are pushing for a higher threshold closer to $1,000 or above. As criminal justice reform has continued to gain momentum in Florida and nationally via a growing bipartisan coalition, Americans for Prosperity, which is affiliated with billionaire Charles Koch, and Texas-based Right on Crime, which supports “conservative solutions for reducing crime,” support raising the threshold.

“There is both a money side of this …. and a human side,” said Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy at the James Madison Institute, a libertarian think tank in Tallahassee. Nuzzo added that by charging fewer people with felonies, the state can use its funds for addiction treatment and other programs rather than prison costs so that “we’re better stewards of tax dollars in the long term.”

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the sponsor of the Senate’s version, said the federation didn’t influence the proposed lower threshold. He said the $750 figure was where he felt he could “have the votes.”

“If folks were doing the bidding of special interests in this case, nothing would happen,” he said. “If you listen to certain advocacy groups for reform they would want us to go to $2,500 if you only listen to others they would want the status quo. We are apparently making no one happy which means we’ve probably got it right.”

Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report.