Senate Considers Updating 1921 Petit Larceny Law

The threshold for petty larceny versus grand larceny, set at $100 sometime between 1921 and 1941, will be increased to $500 if a bill before the Legislature is enacted into law.

Under current law, a person convicted of petit larceny faces up to one year in prison and a misdemeanor conviction. Stealing any money or item valued at less than $100 is petit larceny. Stealing $100 or more – say, a $110 smartphone – is grand larceny, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and the loss of voting rights and job opportunities that come with a felony conviction.

Sen. Sammuel Sanes, the bill’s sponsor, said the old limit is extremely low compared to other jurisdictions. It was set very long ago, he said, when $100 was a lot more money. The bill initially would have raised the threshold to $1,000, but senators amended it to raise it to $500.

"In 1921, an item that was purchased for $100 now is valued at $1,324," Sanes said.

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A felony conviction and risk of up to 10 years in prison, is "a travesty," Sanes said.

The senator said he has sponsored many bills increasing criminal penalties and adding new crimes to the law. (See Related Links, below)

As of 2003, only three jurisdictions had such a low threshold, and now only two do, according to a report by Legislature Legal Counsel Lisa Harris, which was read into the record by Legislature Legal Counsel Augustin Ayala.

V.I. Chief Public Defender Samuel Joseph testified in support of the change, citing the same concerns Sanes raised.

"The currently enacted statute places individuals in peril of possibly serving a 10 year sentence for theft of things which have little monetary value by today’s standards," he said. "If the underlying premise on which the criminal justice system operates is ‘punishment should be comparable to the crime committed,’ then theft of inexpensive items should not lead to the possibility of 10 years incarceration."

The Department of Justice staked out a position opposing any reductions in criminal penalties under any circumstances and favoring increases in criminal penalties under all circumstances, on the grounds that more severe penalties are always a greater "deterrent" than lesser penalties.

"By enacting this type of legislation we would be, in part, denying a part of that essence and purposeful expression that is so characteristic of the criminal conviction," Attorney General Claude Walker said in written testimony read into the record by Deputy Attorney General Quincy McRae.

"The direct criminal conviction and consequences – which is what we are talking about here – are the foundation to the orderly implementation of justice and a necessary result for one’s criminal acts to ensure crimes do not go unpunished. It is the threat of conviction that serves as the deterrent and, when it does not deter, it should serve as the just retribution for failing to abide by the standards our society has set," Walker said in his written testimony.

He also said both grand and petit larcenies were relatively low in 2014 and 2015, but said if the bill were passed, it could "result in an explosion of misdemeanor cases – due to the reduction in deterrence through the threat of felony conviction."

While being questioned by senators, McRae said any increase to the threshold would send a message that crime is acceptable.

"By raising that number you can be seen as giving individuals an opportunity to commit more crimes," McRae said.

Sen. Novelle Francis asked if the Department of Justice could accept raising the threshold to $500 instead of $1,000. McRae said he would oppose any lessening of criminal penalties in any situation.

"If an individual considers stealing a $100 iPhone and says to themselves; if I commit this crime I might lose my right to vote, that is a deterrent to crime," McRae said. He said that judges and prosecutors can choose to be more lenient, but the law should not be changed.

“There must exist strong consequences for those who consciously choose to commit crimes – it is that simple,” said. “But, that is not to say that the most extreme sanction, such as a felony conviction, is always warranted or imposed.”

Sens. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly and Janette Millin Young both argued strongly in favor of the bill, pointing to the damage to lives when a young person cannot go to college, get a GED or get a job because of a single bad decision. That it costs $20,000 per year to incarcerate someone was also discussed.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens, the committee chair, opposed the bill, saying it "will be sending the wrong message, especially to the criminal element."

"One hundred dollars is a lot of money to the people in this community. I cannot support this, and I will not support this,” Gittens said. .

McRae said fewer than five people were sent to prison in the five years he has been at DOJ for grand larceny of items valued in the range of $100. And of that number, most, if not all, were repeat offenders, he said.

After amending the bill to make the threshold $500, the committee voted to send it on for a final vote on the Senate floor.

Voting in favor were: O’Reilly, Young, Francis and Sen. Jean Forde. Gittens voted no. Sens. Neville James and Justin Harrigan were absent. 

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