Repeat shoplifters at Walmart beware — you could be staring at a state prison sentence.
Last month a Hillsborough County grand jury issued felony charges against nine people accused of shoplifting and other theft-related crimes against the Walmart in Manchester.
The charges involve eight separate incidents. Two people were charged in a single attempt to swipe goods by hiding them in storage bins.
The charges are detailed in the monthly batch of indictments issued by a grand jury sitting in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester. They are all class B felonies, which carry a maximum prison term of 3.5 to 7 years.
In one of the busiest courts in the state, it’s not unusual for the Hillsborough North grand jury to issue 100 or more formal charges a month. But to have nine involving incidents at a single retailer, even one of the city’s largest, is unusual.
Shawn Sweeney, the manager of the Hillsborough County prosecutors who brought the indictments, said Wednesday he can’t explain the reason for the spate of Walmart cases.
“There’s nothing in particular happening here with regard to shoplifting offenses or Walmart,” said Sweeney, first assistant in the Manchester office of Hillsborough County Attorney John Coughlin.
“There is no specific reason for these turn of events,” wrote Manchester police spokesman Heather Hamel in an email.
A defense attorney said the felony shoplifting charges stem from a years-old three-strikes law that elevates petty shoplifting charges to felonies in the case of someone facing a third offense.
Someone charged with a felony, even for a minor theft, could lose their job, get kicked out of public housing or face time behind bars because of previously suspended prison sentences hanging over their heads, said Sarah Rothman, the managing attorney for the New Hampshire Public Defender office in Manchester.
“This could be life-changing for something that everyone in the room knows is incredibly minor,” she said.
Drug abuse or mental illness is often at the root of such crimes, she said.
Retailers, however, say a stiff penalty upon a third conviction is warranted to discourage theft.
"If there are mitigating circumstances (mental illness, drug use, etc.) the prosecutor has discretion to take that into account. But the ability to charge the felony by law enforcement is crucial," said Curtis Barry, a lobbyist for the New Hampshire Retail Association.
He said the national retail industry loses as much as $1 billion every year to Organized Retail Crime, which involves roving, organized gangs who travel from state to state to shoplift. Such stealing for profit translates into higher prices for shoppers, he said.
Walmart did not immediately return an email asking if it had adopted a tougher policy on shoplifting.
The oldest case is from 2018, when the suspect allegedly stole more than $1,000 worth of merchandise, one of the largest of the cases in terms of the dollar value of stolen items.
The most recent, from May 18, involves two unspecified items.
Four of the alleged shoplifters live in Manchester, two at the New Horizons homeless shelter. Others live in Meredith, Epsom, Salem and Nashua. The youngest defendant is 25; the oldest is 54.
Two of the cases entail charges of willful concealment, which involves swapping price tags or bar codes on articles of clothing.
Rothman said it’s hard to say what will happen to the suspects, and she realizes people who break the law have to face consequences.
But she said people should never end up in state prison for petty thefts.
“The state and courts,” Rothman said, “are coming along and realizing you can’t incarcerate substance use disorder out of somebody.”