Louisiana theft laws: One size fits all?

Law enforcement officials say the annual rise of crawfish rustling is just around the corner.

But by Easter, April 20, when crawfish is on the menu and stealing from ponds is in full swing, the Louisiana Legislature could be well on its way to eliminating that law along with several others — including stealing alligators and holding pets for ransom — that have been the targets of mirth by comedians and websites such as stupidlaws.com.

“A telephone pole may be valuable to the telephone company, but the diamond ring is more valuable to that citizen who got their stuff stolen,” said Ricky Babin, who chairs the Louisiana Sentencing Commission, a group of lawyers, prosecutors, judges and others looking to revamp the state’s criminal justice system.

Some of the targeted theft statutes have harsher sentences based strictly on what was stolen.

“The move is to change it (the crime) from the ‘thing’ to the ‘value,’ ” Babin said.

The Jindal administration told the Sentencing Commission last week to go ahead with its proposal to eliminate 11 of the 28 specialty theft statutes on Louisiana law books and to proceed with its rewrite of the theft statute in time for the legislative session that begins March 10.

The commission will spend the next month gathering public comment on a proposal that would remove the statutes dedicated to a specific item, then roll all that stealing into a single law that links punishment to the value of the item stolen.

The whole issue could be fixed by trusting the judges more, said state Rep. Joe Lopinto, who chairs the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice, which will hear the legislation.

“If they make a decision you don’t care for, legislation ends up getting changed,” the Metairie Republican said. “From a conviction standpoint, we only need one theft statute. But from a sentencing standpoint, the Legislature in the past has voted for additional theft statutes.”

Prosecutors tell Lopinto that, for the most part, they ignore the specialty crimes and instead rely on the general theft statute.

Do all the various theft statutes cause a problem?

“No, other than make us look like idiots,” Lopinto said.

“It’s a vital issue for us,” said Stephen Minvielle, director of the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association, and crawfish farmer in Iberia Parish.

Theft of crawfish passed through the 2005 Legislature with only one “no” vote, largely on the testimony and lobbying of crawfish farmers who said specifically outlawing rustling would help curb a growing problem for the farms that usually sit unguarded in isolated swampy sections.

Anyone convicted of stealing up to $500 worth of crawfish “shall be imprisoned” and/or fined, according to current law.

Minvielle said he understands the need for legal simplicity but hopes that dropping crawfish won’t chill law enforcement efforts to police the privately owned ponds.

Capt. Ryan Turner, of the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, said, “Theft is theft.” A deputy is assigned to patrol the crawfish ponds. But it’s difficult crime, largely because it usually takes place in the dead of night and requires the rustler to wade out into the ponds to empty the crawfish traps.

Christopher Ivey, commander of the Criminal Investigations Division of the Jefferson Davis Parish Sheriff’s Office, said the point of the law was to better match the sentences with the crime.

A sack of crawfish may sell for about $40, which is not much. Usually the victim is a small farmer for whom the crawfish represents a significant portion of the family’s income that cannot be replaced overnight, like a stolen television.

“That’s why the Legislature set out these specific charges in the first place,” Ivey said.

Louisiana has one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, imprisoning a higher percentage of its people — three times the national average according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics — than any other state.

The crawfish stealing, and the other specialty thefts for that matter, is not contributing much to that number. Since 2007, the state’s trial-level courts have handled 11 crawfish theft cases and five alligator theft cases, according to Case Management Information System, the database for tracking and managing cases. The basic theft statute, by way of comparison, was charged in 38,254 cases.

Judge Fredricka Homberg Wicker, of the state 5th Circuit Court of Appeal in Gretna, says the effort is to streamline Louisiana’s law and make it more understandable and easier to use for prosecutors, police and the public.

“The size and intricacy of our code render it very difficult for the average person to use,” Wicker said.

The Sentencing Commission proposal would expand the basic theft statute to better mirror what other states have. Instead of three broad levels, the version recommended by the Sentencing Commission would make six classes of theft by value of the material stolen. The most serious theft of value, greater than $50,000, would carry a sentence of up to 25 years in prison and a fine of $100,000.

At the lower end of the scale, the value of the stolen goods that would trigger jail time, in most cases, would rise from $500 to $1,000. Theft of $1,000 or more carries a penalty today of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $3,000.

In addition to eliminating crawfish rustling, the rewrite would drop statutes dealing with the theft of livestock, pets, timber, alligators, copper from religious buildings and metal from other buildings.

The commission would start the process of looking at eliminating specific statutes, sought by industry, such as outlawing activities such as stealing utility services, petroleum products, oilfield equipment and anhydrous ammonia. The proposal would leave separate statutes on shoplifting, as well as thefts of firearms, motor vehicles and from the elderly or disabled.

The commission would leave fraud statutes alone, for the time being, but consider a single law to cover crimes like identity theft, stealing business records and using someone else’s credit cards.

The purpose of the proposal is “to get more uniformity within the sentencing of the theft statute itself,” said Sentencing Commission Chairman Babin, who also is district attorney for the 23rd District parishes of Ascension, Assumption and St. James. “It doesn’t change the law. It’s illegal to steal a crawfish.”