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Package thieves could face stiffer prison time, fines under proposed SC law

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Holiday crimes of opportunity

Local law enforcement urge residents to take precautions to avoid theft of delivered items during the holidays. File/Matt Bise/Journal Scene

COLUMBIA — With an increase in online shopping amid a historic pandemic, more packages are being swiped — even in broad daylight with cameras around — from driveways, stoops and curbs by thieves.

But several South Carolina lawmakers are looking to punish those crooks, hoping the state becomes the latest to enact “porch piracy” legislation that would make the act subject to stiffer prison time.

“People need to know that this type of conduct is not going to be tolerated, and as our economy continues to develop where we’re doing less and less brick-and-mortar shopping, that type of activity needs to be protected,” state Rep. Cezar McKnight, D-Kingstree, told a House Judiciary subcommittee on Feb. 24. “This is not just an issue around Christmas time. This happens far more than you would believe.”

He’s lead sponsor of the Defense Against Porch Pirates Act, which would create a new felony penalty for people convicted of such thefts. Initially seeking a mandatory minimum of five years in prison and fines of $5,000, McKnight said he was willing to amend the proposal, giving judges and prosecutors more flexibility in determining how a person should be punished.

“When we pass laws, there are going to be instances beyond our wildest imagination and we are elected solicitors to make those decisions,” state Rep. Seth Rose, D-Columbia, said.

Lawmakers adjourned debate on the issue to work out details of that language, but indicated early support for crafting some of kind statute that would protect victims of package theft.

Union resident George Cleveland agreed that changes were needed.

“Typically, folks who go on people’s porches and steal packages are hooked on some kind of drug,” he told lawmakers. "I'm not talking waive the punishment, I'm not talking away the restitution, but I think we need to have some kind of rehabilitative mechanism, as well.”

Under current law, package theft falls under the broader crime of petit larceny — the same charge for shoplifting or writing a bad check — as long as the goods stolen are worth less than $2,000. The maximum penalty for the misdemeanor is 30 days in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Officials say package theft will become an even greater problem as consumer habits change in the age of coronavirus. Internet shopping rates are spiking, which means larger inventories.

People living in rural areas that are far from major retailers are also susceptible given their isolated location.

Between March and mid-April, e-commerce spending leapt by 30 percent compared to the same rate in 2019 as retail sales dipped by almost 9 percent, according to Rakuten Intelligence.

McKnight said many people also get medications delivered to their homes, such as his father did.

“I believe the sanctity of someone’s home is sacred, and that extends to its peripherals. The front porch, the back porch,” McKnight said.

Palmetto State residents aren’t as afflicted by the problem as others, a recent analysis by Arkansas-based U.S. Packaging and Wrapping found. South Carolina ranked 49th nationally in package thefts per 100,000 people at a rate of 1.84 in 2019, the company found.

And a survey by market insights firm C+R Research found that of 2,000 people nationwide, more than a third reported having a package stolen at least once within the last year, with an average replacement cost of $109.

State Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Conway and subcommittee chairman, said he was optimistic McKnight’s measure would advance once amendments are added.

Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

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