Augusta officials expect law to increase misdemeanor theft cases

An array of changes to state theft laws that went into effect Sunday will result in many suspects being tried on misdemeanor charges for acts that would have been felonies last month.

House Bill 1176, signed into law May 2 by Gov. Nathan Deal, makes numerous changes to the criminal code and revises punishment provisions for several common crimes, including burglary, theft, shoplifting and forgery.

One of the most significant changes alters requirements for charging someone with a felony in the theft of property – referred
to as “theft by taking.” Formerly, a suspect could be charged with a felony if the value of the stolen property was equal to or greater than $500. That standard has been raised to $1,500.

Richmond County sheriff’s Sgt. James Kelly said he thinks this will mean many more misdemeanor charges – which carry a maximum of 12 months’ incarceration and generally about a $1,000 fine.

“It’s going to have a drastic impact because $1,500 is a lot of money,” Kelly said. “That’s a pretty substantial amount that they can get away with for a misdemeanor.”

Solicitor General Charles Evans, who prosecutes misdemeanor thefts in State Court, said he expects his caseload to grow in coming months.

“It certainly going to increase, but it is just hard to say,” he said. “We are in uncharted territory as to determine by how much.”

Theft by taking is one of the most common crimes reported in Richmond County, with more than 8,400 reports in 2011, according to sheriff’s statistics. Evans said the current system doesn’t track monetary value involved, so there is no easy way to look at the previous year to determine how many felony cases would have been misdemeanors under the new law.

Without that comparison, it is anybody’s guess, but Evans is certain the workload will increase.

“Theses cases are more serious in nature,” he said. “They are going to be more demanding because of the amount of money and the attention involved.”

Other changes in the law could also result in more misdemeanor cases coming to State Court, he said. For example, the standard for felony shoplifting increased from $300 to $500 and the state also created a fourth-degree forgery charge, Evans said.

“Possession of a forged check less than $1,500 is now a misdemeanor,” he said.

Evans said depending on the magnitude of the increase in misdemeanor cases, he might need to hire additional prosecutors to handle the work.

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