COURT WATCH: Judge Recognizes Accused’s Economic Struggles, Reduces Felony Shoplifting Charge to Misdemeanor 

By Frances Eusebio and Madison Whittemore

WOODLAND, CA – During a preliminary hearing Tuesday in Yolo County Superior Court, Deputy District Attorney Alex Kian urged the judge not to grant the defense’s “17(b)” request to reduce the accused’s felony charge to a misdemeanor, despite the defense claim the accused has minimal criminal history and the incident was not “felony conduct.”

The judge eventually agreed with the public defender’s argument.

A Penal Code section 17(b) motion allows California courts to lower a felony charge to a misdemeanor if the convicted offense was for a wobbler offense, which can either be charged as a felony or misdemeanor.

On July 13, 2023, two Black women allegedly stole several items from a Walmart shopping center in Woodland, CA, after stuffing several bags full of merchandise and exiting the store without paying for the items.

Shortly after the accused exited the store, Peace Officer Seth Killion arrived on scene and stopped a car that matched the complaining witness’s description.

During the enforcement stop, the officer said they found the accused in the car with five children and several items that had allegedly been stolen from Walmart including blankets, diapers, chicken fingers and French fries.

According to Officer Killion, the accused cooperated and even called her mother on the phone, stating that she was “detained by the police for stealing chicken and fries from Walmart.”

Shortly after, Woodland Police Officer Maria Perez arrived on the scene and arrested the accused for conspiracy to commit a felony.

Officer Perez explained she had spoken to the Woodland Walmart loss prevention officer (LPO) who had stated that the “two Black female adults” had “got away with possibly six to seven items.”

Officer Perez also noted that according to the LPO, there was no struggle during the LPO’s encounter with the accused when he took away her shopping cart.

Following DDA Kian’s witness examination, Killian noted that they had received an email from a Walmart employee who was able to identify the accused, and was present during the time of the crime.

The Walmart employee provided Killian with two receipts, one for loss prevention, recovering $257 worth of merchandise from the store, and another detailing $116 of merchandise which police recovered from the enforcement stop.

According to Deputy Public Defender Sarah MacDonald, the accused’s actions did not meet the elements to be a felony charge and should therefore be reduced to a misdemeanor charge because the accused has no criminal convictions and was cooperative with officers.

DPD MacDonald added the accused took items consisting of food, children’s blankets, diapers and diaper wipes which are characteristic of “someone [who] is struggling with poverty.”

DDA Kian presented a brief argument to Judge Cortés explaining why the accused should be charged with a felony versus a misdemeanor and highlighted what he thought to be weaknesses in DPD MacDonald’s argument.

“The poverty level also amounts to speculation,” Kian explained, noting that poverty is not justification for stealing from a retail store, nor is it justification for getting a charge reduction.

Continuing to address the concern of organized retail theft, DDA Kian emphasized that many individuals involved in retail theft do not expect to face felonies, and when felony charges are reduced to misdemeanors, it often encourages more theft since accused individuals may return to steal again.

“A lot of individuals are going in, stealing items from these retail stores, expecting just a misdemeanor citation and then going in and doing it again,” Kian asserted, also adding, “By reducing this…to a misdemeanor it’s going to further encourage this behavior.”

However, DPD MacDonald persisted in her argument for a 17(b) reduction and explained that the accused—who was just trying to provide for her young children—did not display felony conduct.

“The facts and circumstances here are exactly why we have the remedy of a 17(b),” DPD MacDonald concluded. But DDA Kian continued to label the accused’s theft as a “concerted effort” that should warrant a felony charge.

Judge Sonia Cortés recognized the individual’s struggle with poverty, and granted DPD MacDonald’s 17(b) request to reduce the felony to a misdemeanor, noting the items taken from Walmart were indicative of the accused’s economic struggles.

About The Author

Madison Whittemore is a rising junior at the University of California, Davis where she studies political science and psychology. After completing her undergraduate studies, Madison wants to go to law school and study criminal law while working to improve efforts for prison reform and representation for lower income citizens.

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