By Linda Dillman
A sting operation by Fairfield County to nab criminals pilfering from a Canal Winchester big box store ignited a discussion by Canal Winchester City Council regarding the city’s response to shoplifters.
Sgt. Kellie Walker of the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Department said that, on Jan. 21, the sheriff’s office investigation bureau conducted an operation targeting retail theft in Canal Winchester that resulted in 11 arrests at Walmart.
Councilwoman Jill Amos asked Law Director Thaddeus Boggs if the city has the ability to make its shoplifting ordinance more “fierce.”
“From what I understand, right now there’s no teeth in it and they can go rob the Walmart and they can go to court and their fee is so minimal that they keep coming back,” said Amos. “I want to make it so it’s not fun for them to ‘shop’ here, that’s it’s going to affect them.”
Boggs said that petty theft—according to city code—is a first degree misdemeanor, which is the highest level of criminal offense that the city can fine, which is up to $1,000 and a potential sentence of 180 days in jail.
“Often what is done is a period of probation, fine, and days served in jail,” said Boggs. “The criminal must also not return to the store. If they do so, they are in violation of their probation and could be charged with criminal trespass. There is teeth for repeat offenders. It’s a challenge dealing with these petty thefts.”
Amos asked to see data on repeat offenders and fines.
Canal Winchester Finance Director Amanda Jackson said the fine portion in a mayor’s court case depends on whether or not the accused has a prior petty theft charge.
“We do have a lot of first time offenders that come through and the maximum fine in that situation is typically $250 plus court costs, which gives them $317 that is owed to us,” said Jackson. “We spend a lot of time chasing most of these individuals for payment. We have started putting more individuals in jail.”
Amos believes that sheriff deputies are dispatched to Walmart or Meijer far too much.
“When we see start seeing people who steal these large ticket items like $600 or $700 and walk away with a $300 fine, I fail to see where we’ve taught them a lesson,” said Amos.
Jackson admitted there are some offenders who are known by name because they were previously charged with theft.
While community service could be part of a plea deal, Mayor Mike Ebert said someone from the city needs to supervise someone doing community service.
“We had an incident several years ago where we had a young lady who wanted to do community service,” said Ebert. “We had her weeding the flower beds, but we had to have someone with her the whole time. So, watching over her was just not worth it.”
Allegations of the city being an easy mark for theft were dispelled by Boggs who said he would be surprised if the city’s reputation as an easier place to steal is any different than jurisdictions around Canal Winchester.
“Retail theft in general is not going away,” said Walker, who said SWAT officers were undercover during the recent sting operation. “They see all of these places as an easy target all around central Ohio. If it’s a repeat offender, they’re going to jail.”
Jackson said the 11 offenders picked up during the Fairfield County sting will be tried at the next mayor’s court this month.