Tucson lawmaker considers bill to target ‘flash robs’

Caitlin Coakley Beckner//December 27, 2011

Tucson lawmaker considers bill to target ‘flash robs’

Caitlin Coakley Beckner//December 27, 2011

As videos go viral of teenagers streaming in and out of stores and grabbing merchandise off shelves, Rep. Terri Proud is working on legislation to bring conspiracy laws into the technology age.

The Tucson Republican plans to introduce a bill to make it a felony to use electronic communication to plan or organize crimes.

Tucson police detective Jason Winski approached Proud with the idea after seeing how common “flash robs” or “flash robberies” have become.

The crimes are similar to the “flash mobs” where a groups of people are recruited to show up somewhere to break out in a choreographed dance – except instead of dancing, the participants take advantage of the chaos to shoplift.

It’s a trend that has retailers and police officers nervous, but some local groups have reservations about any attempts to legislate online behavior.

The law is “a great idea,” said Levi Bolton, lobbyist for the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. The robberies are “almost unstoppable” by law enforcement and pose a significant threat to employees and fellow shoppers.

But he pointed out that it is difficult to regulate how people act online, particularly with regard to privacy and free speech.

“For example, email could be used to organize one of these things,” Bolton said. “Does that mean the police have the right to investigate all of the recipients?”

The reason Proud and Winski believe a new law is necessary is because current statutes against organizing crimes were written before the rise of the Internet and social media.

“We have to start the discussion as technology changes,” he said. “We have statutes that were defining conspiracy to commit a crime as four people meeting in a basement somewhere.”

The “flash robs” have gotten a reputation as a social media phenomenon, since police suspect in many cases that the organizers used outlets like Twitter to co-ordinate them. In June, a group of 40 teenagers raided a Sears department store in Upper Darby, Pa., in an attack that police believe was organized using Facebook and Twitter.

Similar crimes in the Washington, D.C., area and other cities are believed to have been organized online.

Proud said that these sorts of crimes need the same sort of awareness as cyber-bullying.

“When a child is being bullied, and people are posting things online about them, making fake websites about them, really torturing them, and then that student commits suicide, we would think that the students behind it would be responsible,” she said. But too often, she said, laws and rules are interpreted only to apply when the tormentors are face-to-face with their victims.

But as Bolton points out, not all of the coordinated robberies have been organized online. 7-Eleven convenience stores in Germantown and Silver Spring, Md., were hit this year by mobs that were organized by word-of-mouth, according to local news reports.

Nevertheless, Winski said that the current laws that deal with conspiracy are vague when it comes to online coordination of a crime. If he or another law enforcement officer suspected a person or group of conspiring to commit a crime in the traditional fashion – meeting up in person – the police could run surveillance on the group and gather evidence for a search warrant, he said.

But right now, he said, the police don’t have the same tools to adequately investigate the same sort of conspiracy online. Even after the crime, if police apprehended one of the participants, they could only arrest that person for shoplifting when they would rather get to the root of the conspiracy.

“The bottom line is, if 30 people go into a Wal-Mart and they all steal things, and you catch one, is shoplifting really what you want to stick them with?” he said.

Organizations like the National Retail Federation have expressed concern about the rising popularity of the crimes.

But Michelle Ahlmer, executive director of the Arizona Retailers Association, has reservations similar to Bolton’s: It’s a problem that warrants concern, but she advises caution when it comes to introducing new laws.

“It’s not an issue that we see as being really pressing,” she said. “I’m not sure that it requires legislation, because quite frankly, if it’s a theft issue, we already have statutes to address that.”

So far, the concerns have been addressed by store security personnel, which Ahlmer said was appropriate.

The language of the bill is still being finalized, and Proud said she had not yet spoken to any law enforcement organizations about it.

Bolton maintains that the law could be a good solution with the right people participating in stakeholders’ meetings, including computer forensics officers.

“We have a lot of talent in Arizona when it comes to law enforcement, and their perspective would be very valuable,” he said. “But I think this is a great first step.”