Package theft is now a felony in 8 states and counting as lawmakers crack down on 'porch piracy'
- Package theft is a staple of the e-commerce age, and is more common in some states than others.
- Efforts to up the penalty for package theft are controversial.
Since the e-commerce explosion of 2020 and 2021, package theft has become a constant consumer concern, and lawmakers are taking notice.
The crime is difficult to track, but some trends are clear. It's more common in apartment complexes and shared buildings than single-family homes. And it's more common in urban areas over suburban ones, according to Consumer Reports. But there's no rock-solid way to know how often "porch pirates" strike, and upping the punishment is a controversial move.
Though 11% of people who receive packages they order online have had at least one stolen, according to a Consumer Reports survey from 2021, only 9% filed a police report. In the same survey, 65% of the affected people said they had at least two packages stolen.
And even if they had logged the theft with police, the crime of package theft is filed and charged differently depending on the location. In some places it's simple theft, like any other. In others, there's a separate charge for package theft.
And in states where there's a distinction, lawmakers are cracking down, hard. In the last four years, eight US states have elevated package theft from a misdemeanor to a felony:
- Texas — Package theft has been a felony since 2019, with a penalty of six months to 10 years in prison, which can be increased if the crime involved disabled or elderly people.
- Michigan — Package theft is considered a felony on the second violation, with a penalty of up to five years in prison.
- Oklahoma — Package theft can be charged as a felony if the perpetrator is convicted of three instances within 60 days. The punishment is up to five years in prison.
- Arkansas — Package theft has been a felony since 2021, punishable by up to six years in prison.
- Tennessee — Package theft has been a felony since 2021, punishable by up to six years in prison.
- Georgia — Since 2021, package theft can be charged as a felony since if the perpetrator has taken three packages or pieces of mail from one address or 10 or more pieces from three or more addresses. The crime is punishable by up to five years in prison.
- New Jersey — At the end of 2022, package theft became a "third-degree crime" in New Jersey with a punishment of up to five years in prison.
- Kentucky — Package theft became a felony punishable by up to five years in prison last year.
California, New York, South Carolina, Kansas, and Missouri all have similar laws drafted and pending passage through state legislatures, according to a list compiled by The Guardian and the investigative journalism outfit Type Investigations.
Where is package theft most common?
There isn't much of a correlation between the states cracking down on package theft and the places that experience it. Only one of the top 10 metro areas experiencing the most package theft is in a state where porch piracy is a felony. Those cities were ranked by Vivint, a home security firm, using Google Trends data combined with FBI data on larceny:
- San Francisco, California
- Seattle, Washington
- Austin, Texas
- Hartford, Connecticut
- Sacramento, California
- Los Angeles, California
- Portland, Oregon
- Fresno, California
- Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- New Orleans, Louisiana
Delivery worker dragnet?
Stealing anything delivered by the US Postal Service is already a felony, but a bill to extend that rule to all delivery companies nationwide was introduced in the US House of Representatives last year by democrat Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota. It was referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security in November.
"It's theft and it needs a higher level of punishment," Rep. Dan Meuser, a Republican from Texas, stated. "It sends a message that we're getting tough on those who prey on customers waiting for their items they've paid for, including medication and gifts."
Supporters of escalating punishment for package theft see the concept as a natural extension of existing protections for USPS packages in the e-commerce age — and a necessary deterrent to criminals that can end up stealing crucial items like prescription drugs.
Last year, The Guardian analyzed all of Texas's porch piracy charges since its law passed in 2019. Out of 113 charges, none appeared to be cases of organized crime, and were more likely crimes of desperation or opportunity.
Critics say that these laws could end up disproportionately affecting people of color, especially delivery workers. Given the popularity of doorbell camera security systems, delivery workers can easily end up accused of package theft without conclusive evidence, said Aiha Nguyen, program director for Data and Society, a nonprofit research organization. When packages disappear, delivery personnel are often the last known person in contact with them and in clear view of now-ubiquitous cameras, she said.
"We think that these are pretty misguided because they'll likely pull this low wage workforce, which is made up of many people of color, into the law enforcement dragnet," she said. When packages disappear, delivery personnel are often the last known person in contact with them and in clear view of now ubiquitous doorbell cameras, she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union has taken issue with several "porch piracy" bills around the country, including the one currently being considered in California, which it said "could be used as a pretext for arresting people against whom law enforcement or property owners are explicitly or implicitly biased."
The ACLU and Nguyen also pointed out that theft is already illegal and making package theft an automatic felony takes out the nuances out of existing larceny laws.
"A lot of these a lot of the laws don't have minimums," Nguyen said. "It could be a felony for stealing a $5 lipstick."
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