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Can I Be Charged with a Felony for Stealing Hand Sanitizer?

Usually, this would be an easy question to answer. But this answer is now in debate after a recent interview with the Washington County District Attorney. The State of Oregon may increase misdemeanor theft charges to felonies if such crimes are committed in relation to COVID-19, KATU news reports. This references theft crimes involving face masks and other PPE, or businesses that closed as a result of COVID-19. If you committed several theft crimes during the pandemic and meet the $100 threshold for 2nd degree theft, then you may also be subject to a felony charge.

This report seems to indicate that thefts and burglaries have increased in Washington County as a direct result of the coronavirus outbreak. While that could be the case, we do not know for sure. In the absence of actual studies or data regarding that link, it appears to be anyone’s reasonable guess.

Contact Cornerstone Law Group online or by calling (503) 461-5005 for help!

Caution: Good Intentions Do Not Equal Lawfulness

The District Attorney’s main goal in going on the record with the media seems to be a noble one – crime prevention. But efforts at crime prevention can take strange – sometimes even illegal – turns. Prosecutors’ methods should be monitored to ensure that citizens do not fall prey to misuse of the law. In this case, the potentially dangerous misapplication of whether a theft is “committed during a riot, fire, explosion, catastrophe or other emergency.”

Oregon Governor Kate Brown has clearly declared an ongoing state of emergency in Oregon due to the COVID-19 crisis. But the law itself seems to list circumstances that bring to mind situations like looting stores during a riot or fire that is taking place at the location where the crime is committed.

Can Prosecutors Make Any Crime a Felony?

Like everyone else, prosecutors must follow the law. They do not hold the sole power to decide what should be a felony or misdemeanor. In his interview, the Washington County District Attorney is really only referencing the following Oregon law:

Theft in the First DegreeA person commits the crime of theft in the first degree if, by means other than extortion, the person commits theft and:

  • The total value of the property in a single or aggregate transaction is $1,000 or more; or
  • the theft is committed during a riot, fire, explosion, catastrophe or other emergency in an area affected by the riot, fire, explosion, catastrophe or other emergency; or
  • theft is committed by buying, selling, borrowing or lending on the security of the property; or
  • the subject of the theft is a firearm or explosive; or
  • the subject of the theft is a livestock animal, a companion animal or a wild animal removed from habitat or born of a wild animal removed from habitat; or
  • the subject of the theft is a precursor substance.

Theft in the First Degree is a Class C felony, carrying a maximum of 5 years in prison. In KATU’s report, the District Attorney focused on the portion of the law referencing a riot, fire, catastrophe or other emergency. That is also why the news report references theft of $20-worth of items as a potential felony, when it would normally be charged as a misdemeanor. Essentially, the sole reason you may be charged with felony theft is for committing such crime during a “catastrophe or other emergency,” such as COVID-19.

What Should I Do If I’m Charged with a Felony During COVID-19?

The question we will be asking as we monitor any theft charges by Washington County going forward is: Will misdemeanor-level thefts committed during the ongoing crisis have the potential to be charged as a felony simply because it occurs during a pandemic?

This issue is just one example of how convoluted criminal charges can get, and serves as a vital reminder that you should hire a knowledgeable lawyer at Cornerstone Law Group if you find yourself in a difficult situation. Do not allow a prosecutor to mishandle your case using the COVID-19 crisis as justification. Our criminal defense lawyers will fight for your best interests.

Reach out to us online or by calling (503) 461-5005 to learn about how we can help you!

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