Shoplifting case highlights legal changes

Published 1:30 am Sunday, July 13, 2014

Kodey Goulette’s sentencing for shoplifting took less than a minute, but that few seconds, after a long delay Friday, set precedent for how the Ninth Circuit Court will deal with a major overhaul in state law that went into effect at the beginning of this month.
Goulette, 21, 107 Warren St., had been indicted for felony shoplifting after stealing a generator valued at more than $500 but less than $1,000 from Home Depot, Assistant District Attorney Burt Carraway said.
The law that went into effect July 1 changed the threshold for felony shoplifting from $500 to $1,000. The threshold was also increased for grand larceny.
“Cody Goulette stole what was back then a felony,” Carraway said. “It’s a misdemeanor now.”
Circuit Judge Isadore Patrick chose to sentence Goulette, who waited in court for more than three and a half hours Friday, to five years in prison followed by five years probation, which prosecutors had recommended.
“I’m of the opinion that the court can take the recommendation of the state,” Patrick said.
He could have as easily changed Goulette’s crime to a misdemeanor, meaning that every outstanding shoplifting or grand larceny case where the items were valued at less than $1,000 would have to be remanded to lower courts.
An Attorney General’s opinion issued in June contended that defendants who do not meet the updated property value thresholds should be prosecuted in misdemeanor courts. However, in Wilson v. Mississippi in 2007, the state Supreme Court ruled that while changes in sentencing lengths could not be retroactively applied, changes in property value thresholds constituted new laws. Those indicted under previous laws, they ruled, should be prosecuted and punished under those laws.
“The changes in the law effect the law itself and not the penalty,” District Attorney Ricky Smith said.
The new shoplifting statues could best be described as convoluted.
First- and second-time offenders can only be prosecuted for felonies if the value of items that are stolen is more than $1,000. On a third offense, the value threshold is reduced to $500. Any shoplifting of less than $500 is never a felony. Prosecutors are allowed to aggregate value but only if the offenses happen in a 30-day window at three or more different stores, Smith said.
“Of all the changes, I think it’s one of the worst. We fought. It was a battle during the Legislature,” said Smith who is president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association.
Smith has already begun lobbying shopkeepers, and the Chamber of Commerce to ask the Legislature to amend the law.
Even value itself is defined trickily in the law.
Items are no longer valued at retail price or equivalent retail price for the same item. Value is now defined as the price an item is worth at the moment it was stolen, leaving room for defense attorneys to argue about the price of an item.
“It means the state will have to pay for expert witnesses to determine value,” Smith said.
The new laws were designed to lower the state’s prison population by providing lower sentencing guidelines for nonviolent crimes and more alternative sentencing options such as drug court.
Burglary, however, became a violent crime under state law. That means burglars will spend at least 50 percent of their sentence in jail before being released, but they are no longer eligible for drug court.
“My position is that any burglary of a dwelling is now inadmissible to drug court,” Smith said. “We will not be making any more recommendations for anyone indicted for burglary because we think the new law prohibits that,” Smith said.
A quick fix, Smith said, would be amending a section of state law that spells out drug court requirements to include burglary.
Sentencing regulations for sale of a controlled substance have been slashed. Before July 1, a drug dealer could get up to 30 years in prison. Now, a first-time drug dealer who sells a few grams of a controlled substance can only spend up to eight years in prison.
Since sale of a controlled substance is a nonviolent offense, they are eligible for release after serving 25 percent of their sentence, making it difficult to reach plea agreements, Smith said.
“I think we will see more people taking a chance before the jury,” he said.

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