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Georgia could make porch theft a felony; critics decry move



Georgia could make it a felony with mandatory prison time for people who steal a single package off someone’s porch or front step, no matter the value.

The House voted 101-67 on Wednesday to approve House Bill 94, which creates a specific crime of porch piracy. The bill also makes it a felony to steal at least 10 pieces of mail from three different addresses or mailboxes. A conviction for either crime would bring a sentence of one to 5 years in prison.

The measure moves to the Senate for more debate.

Supporters say the measures are needed to combat organized theft, especially as more people have become reliant on package deliveries during the COVID-19 pandemic, but critics say the proposal is overly harsh.

“Many people today rely on life-essential medications being delivered in packages, and we’re having a rash of incidents around the states of those medications being stolen from someone’s porch step,” Rep. Terry England, an Auburn Republican, said during the debate.

Some other states including Oklahoma and Texas have made a third package theft a felony. But South Carolina lawmakers recently postponed a vote on a bill that would have made porch piracy a felony requiring an automatic sentence of five years. Utah lawmakers watered down a bill, stopping short of an original proposal to create a felony.

Rep. Bonnie Rich, the Suwanee Republican sponsoring the bill, said prosecutors are reluctant to bring charges in package theft cases because theft of anything valued at less than $1,500 is a misdemeanor, even if it’s something highly sensitive like a driver’s license.

But opponents said the measure “overcriminalizes” what could be a low-value crime and cuts against Georgia’s efforts to be less punitive. House Minority Whip William Boddie, an East Point Democrat, warned that a teen could ruin his life over the poor choice to grab one low-value package, and contrasted the law with the current theft statute, which gives a judge discretion to rule that even some expensive thefts should only be misdemeanors.

“He’s looking at one to five for possibly stealing a package of vitamins from Amazon that’s valued at $19.99,” Boddie said.

Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican, argued that prosecutors were unlikely to charge someone for one low-value theft, but that it would ease the way to charging members of package-theft rings without having to try to prove the value of what was stolen. Efstration and other supporters say that coming up to the door of a dwelling is akin to how a burglar’s break-in violates the sanctity of a home. Burglary is a felony no matter whether anything is taken.

“What we’re talking about is on your property, on your front porch, somebody entering that area where I would say there is a ripe opportunity for some kind of terrible outcome,” Efstration said.

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