Sacramento City Attorney’s Office Warned Target It Could Face Fines for Calls About Thefts

A security guard watches customers inside the Target store on Riverside Boulevard in Sacramento. (Sara Nevis/The Sacramento Bee/TNS, File)

(The Sacramento Bee/TNS) — The Sacramento City Attorney’s Office warned a Target store that it could face a public nuisance charge due to a large number of phone calls placed to police when thieves repeatedly stole from its location.

A person with knowledge of the warning, but not authorized to speak publicly due to the fear of retaliation, told The Sacramento Bee that city officials threatened the Target at 2505 Riverside Blvd. during the past year with an administrative fine. A Sacramento police spokesman confirmed the location — a site that prompted heavy ire from residents of the Land Park neighborhood due to frequent crime — when asked about the apparent warning.

The alleged warning issued by Sacramento city officials — and similar actions by other cities across the state — prompted lawmakers to add an amendment to a retail theft bill that would outlaw such threats made by authorities. Pursuing legal actions against businesses for reporting crime brought heavy criticism from law enforcement.

“I … (was) also surprised that anyone would ever attempt to make a nuisance case out of somebody calling to report a legitimate crime,” said Alexander Gammelgard, president of the California Police Chiefs Association while testifying in December at the Assembly’s first retail theft committee meeting. “I don’t think there is a place for that.”

The City Attorney’s Office and the Sacramento Police Department were not aware of any threats of litigation, Tim Swanson, a spokesman for the city of Sacramento, wrote in an email.

It’s unclear why City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood’s office would allegedly resort to issuing such a warning to any business seeking help from police. Swanson did not grant multiple interview requests to the City Attorney’s Office over a period of about a week.

Clark Kelso, a professor of law at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, said “there is no question” that city attorneys have every right to pursue a public nuisance charge against businesses in which owners know the property is dangerous. However, experts said it’s unclear if the law allows a public nuisance charge when people steal from the store. The retailer is a victim, and could be seeking serious help when confronted with shoplifters, he said.

The alleged warnings by city officials statewide may affect what crime data is reported as businesses contend with the potential of facing legal action for reporting retail theft, a topic spurring heavy debate in California. Lawmakers have said the unreliable data has caused some skepticism about what, if any, legislation should be passed.

Blake Randol, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Stanislaus, found the situation disconcerting because the purpose behind pursuing the action is to stop a person or entity from creating disorder. The responsibility of a city is to help residents and a public nuisance change could deter a business from reporting, he said, while also noting that city officials could issue warnings because they would like to see a decrease in crime statistics.

“What’s problematic is that what Target is complaining about is a legitimate crime concern,” Randol said. “The city does have a responsibility to be more responsive to the public and be responsive to crime control demands from the public.”

The number of calls for service related to theft, robbery and shoplifting at the three Target locations in the city of Sacramento increased sharply in 2023, according to The Bee’s analysis of police data. At the same time, most calls did not result in police taking a crime report, issuing a citation or making an arrest.

But police did take those actions much more often in 2023 than in prior years, according to data.

Target locations within the city of Sacramento had a total of 375 calls for service related to theft, robbery and shoplifting in 2023, up from about 175 in 2022 and 87 in 2021. The uptick between last year’s data and the same period two years prior was 331%.

Police took about 80 crime reports related to theft, robbery and shoplifting in 2023, up from about 35 in 2022, a 128% increase. Police took an average of 27 crime reports each year from 2018 through 2022.

Police made about 55 arrests related to theft, robbery and shoplifting in 2023, more than double the number of arrests in 2022 (26) and a five-fold jump from the eight arrests made in 2021. Officers issued 18 citations in 2023, up from 6 in 2022 and two in 2021.

The threats of charges — coming as lawmakers were poised to pass bills they believed would stem retail theft while a district attorney-led effort for harsher penalties is planned for the November ballot — affect the ability to fully understand the picture of crime data.

The district attorneys have long blamed what they see as a rise in retail theft and drug crimes on Proposition 47, a 2014 voter-approved measure that made some lower-level crimes misdemeanors and set a $950 felony threshold for shoplifting.

Assemblyman Rick Chavez Zbur, D-Los Angeles, and Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, co-authored Assembly Bill 2943, which allows prosecutors to aggregate property crimes. The bill was amended to dissuade cities from threatening retailers seeking help and was slated for a third reading and vote in the Assembly this week.

“The bill would clarify that local law enforcement or a local jurisdiction is prohibited from bringing a nuisance action against a business solely for the act of reporting retail crime, unless the report is knowingly false,” the bill’s amendment reads.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, Rivas and Senate Pro Tem Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, have been pushing a 14-bill package tightening penalties on retail theft offenses as their answer to the ballot measure. They’ve said their legislation will do a good job of dealing with these crimes, and it’s not necessary to change Proposition 47.

Newsom and Democratic leaders had planned on a drug and theft ballot measure to compete with the D.A.’s effort, now known as Proposition 36. But, last week, Newsom abruptly pulled the initiative from consideration after the governor insisted the effort lacked lawmakers’ votes.

Rachel Michelin, the president and CEO of the California Retailers Association, said the amendment was included to allow businesses freedom to call law enforcement without repercussions. She declined to discuss the City Attorney’s Office’s apparent warnings to Target.

A city attorney would typically issue a letter or attempt to speak with a business about the potential for a public nuisance charge.

The source with knowledge of actions said the City Attorney’s Office warned Target it could send a letter about issuing a public nuisance charge.

Ultimately a letter was never sent.

Wood, in her capacity as city attorney, could make an argument describing the large call volume and how it detracts from high-priority calls and clogs up a burdened dispatch system, said Kelso, the McGeorge law professor.

A city attorney could bring legal action if the victims were shoppers robbed in the parking lot, Kelso said. The store has a duty to protect the public on its land, he said, and the city would like to ensure residents’ safety.

But, Kelso said, the main legal question that was uncertain was whether the city could pursue public nuisance charges if people were shoplifting from Target.

“If there’s no threats to any members of the public, if nobody is threatened by it … well, where’s the public harm?” Kelso said.

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