“Porch Pirates” Would Face Enhanced Penalties Under Proposed California Bill

by Ambrosio Rodriguez | Feb 15, 2021 | Theft Crimes
Cardboard boxes on the door mat near the entrance door

A California lawmaker recently introduced a Senate bill that would increase criminal penalties for those who steal delivered packages. Under Senate Bill 358, so-called “porch pirates” would be facing steeper penalties, such as jail time, especially for repeat offenders. 

What Does California’s Current Theft Law Say About Stolen Packages?

Under California’s current law, package theft is merely a misdemeanor crime, like shoplifting. This is true no matter how many prior criminal convictions are on the defendant’s criminal record. 

Contrast that to theft or receipt of stolen U.S. mail, which is a federal felony under 18 U.S. Code Section 1708. California may soon see steeper criminal penalties for package theft, however. 

The terms of the proposed law would:

  • Increase the penalties for defendants with two or more prior convictions in a 36-month period, up to felony charges from the current misdemeanor charges
  • Increase jail time with a third conviction of package theft 
  • Change the penalty from one year in jail to up to three years’ imprisonment

This new law, if passed, would buck the recent criminal justice reform trend in California and across the United States.

Why Are Incidents of Porch Pirate Theft on the Rise?

Since the beginning of the lockdowns meant to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have shifted their shopping habits. There have been record-breaking online sales and, of course, deliveries. 

Most e-retailers offer the benefit of 2-day delivery. The only drawback of ordering online might be the risk of losing your package to a porch pirate before you get home to pick it up! Like companies developing porch lockboxes, California’s Senate is considering other methods to protect Californians from porch pirates. 

The author of Senate Bill 358 claims that the porch piracy has mostly harmed the elderly, shut-in, disabled, and other vulnerable California citizens. They have been denied valuable personal protective equipment (PPE), food, and medicine. 

Why Are Penalties for Package Theft So Light?

Theft from inside the home, classified as a robbery, is a felony. Likewise, theft of U.S. mail is a felony, as is mail fraud. Why are package theft penalties so light?

In part because the penalties were initially contemplated prior to the rise in e-commerce. While catalogs have allowed consumers to make mail-order purchases for years, in the time before major e-retail, mail-order packages would have been covered under federal U.S. mail laws.

In June 2020, global retail e-commerce traffic posted a record 22 billion monthly visits. Imagine the billions of dollars of value shipped every day due to e-commerce sales in the U.S. 

Why is There a Push to Increase Porch Pirate Penalties?

Porch pirate thefts have increased notably since the onset of the pandemic. Because these individuals are only subject to misdemeanor penalties, they face little or no meaningful punishment for their crimes, in comparison to the value of the goods stolen. 

In theory, increasing penalties for repeat offenders will discourage recidivism. 

Why is There Opposition to the Porch Pirate Bill?

According to a statement issued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), there are fears the bill “could be used as a pretext for arresting people against whom law enforcement or property owners are explicitly or implicitly biased.”

The ACLU points out that other laws already make package theft a crime. 

Another issue raised by those in opposition: increased penalties don’t solve the real problem, which is difficult enforcement of existing laws. Since porch pirates can quickly scoop up a delivered package while walking by, they are not often seen by neighbors or others who can report the crime. 

By the time homeowners become aware, they may choose to take it up with the shipping company. Even when porch pirate thefts are reported to law enforcement, unless digital cameras have reliable photos of the perpetrator, it can be difficult to identify the culprits.

Last Updated on May 31, 2021