Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody stood outside of Hialeah City Hall on Tuesday, calling for beefed-up retail theft sentencing guidelines to deter a crime she acknowledged hadn’t really taken hold in Florida.
At least not yet.
Surrounded by state and federal lawmakers, the attorney general referenced widely viewed videos of gangs rampaging through retail outlets — the vast majority of them outside of Florida — and called it an “endless cycle of smash-and-grabs.”
And though she said most “organized theft rings " were doing their dirty work in other states, Moody warned that Hialeah and the state of Florida are not immune to “massive, large theft rings” making their way down the state’s east coast.
“Florida will never become California,” she said. The governor there has already announced he would add state troopers to fight a retail theft wave that’s playing out in San Francisco.
A draft copy of Moody’s bill, provided to the Miami Herald, shows charges stemming from organized retail theft could be enhanced if prosecutors could prove five thefts were committed within a 30-day period with a total of 10 items taken in a minimum of two locations. Moody said the sentencing guidelines would be left to legislators.
The attorney general didn’t provide numbers showing that retail theft had become a major problem in Hialeah or throughout Florida and she took very few questions before being ushered away.
Critics and political foes of Gov. Ron DeSantis called the press conference a grandstanding scare tactic and demanded data to support the need for any new law or task force.
“Is this retail crime the most serious problem we have in Florida right now?” asked Florida Democratic Party Chairman Manny Diaz. “It doesn’t even exist. It’s smoke and mirrors.”
Diaz equated it to DeSantis’ anti-riot law, which was temporarily blocked by a federal judge in September, and to the governor’s mention of creating a civilian military force.
University of Miami Sociology chairperson and criminologist Alex Piquero said he could think of a single instance of the type of smash-and-grab Moody was referring to. Two nights after Christmas, a group of people smashed the front window of a Palm Beach boutique and stole about $1 million worth of Hermes handbags.
“This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Piquero. “If there is a problem, then show us the data. Community gun violence. That’s a priority. I’m not sure retail theft ranks in the same playing field.”
Moody has been quick to jump on the smash-and-grab videos that have popped up occasionally in mostly left-leaning metropolises and which have gone viral on Fox News and other right-wing media sites. In early December, she created a task force called FORCE, Florida Organized Retail Crime Exchange, which uses a database to help track thefts and who committed them.
When she announced the task force, the attorney general said prosecutors had tried almost 60 cases of organized theft involving 250 people. She didn’t say over what period of time or how many resulted in guilty verdicts.
Get insights into Florida politics
Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Claims on just how big organized theft rings are and how much damage they’ve caused differ greatly, sometimes even from the same sources.
When Moody announced the creation of her task force last month, the National Retail Federation said that 70 percent of retailers had reported an uptick in crime in the past year. But in a Los Angeles Times report on the same issue in mid-December the same organization said retail theft was estimated at $700,000 per $1 billion in sales, or only .07 percent.
Even a PDF in the news release issued by Moody’s office about Tuesday’s briefing in Hialeah shows that the number of people taken into custody, found guilty or fined for retail theft has gone down more than 80 percent statewide since 2015.
At her side Tuesday were a handful of Republican political leaders, including Hialeah Mayor Steve Bovo, U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Gimenez and state Sens. Manny Diaz and Ileana Garcia.
Bovo, admitting retail theft was not a huge issue in his community at the moment, called small business owners the lifeblood of Hialeah and said of retail theft, “we need to make sure we blunt it before it takes root.”
Diaz-Balart, who along with Gimenez voted to overturn Joe Biden’s presidential electoral victory in November, lauded Moody and Florida’s governor for being tough on crime, claiming that Democrat-led states were too soft.
“Without the rule of law, nothing is possible,” he said. “What we’re seeing in state after state is the rule of law breaking down.”
• • •
Tampa Bay Times Florida Legislature coverage
Sign up for our newsletter: Get Capitol Buzz, a special bonus edition of The Buzz with Emily L. Mahoney, each Saturday while the Legislature is meeting.
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news from the state’s legislative session. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.