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Idaho court upholds use of burglary law against Wal-Mart shoplifter

BOISE – The Idaho Supreme Court has upheld the state’s burglary law, rejecting a Coeur d’Alene man’s challenge that it’s unconstitutional because it was used to charge him with felony burglary instead of misdemeanor shoplifting for taking items from a Wal-Mart store.

Idaho’s burglary law simply requires that a person enter a place with an intent to commit a crime. The result is that shoplifters are routinely charged with the more serious felony burglary if prosecutors can show they entered the store with the intent to steal.

Ryan Rawlings stole several items from a Wal-Mart store in Kootenai County in May of 2014; he placed them in a shopping cart, wheeled it through the self-checkout line, and left without paying.

He was charged with misdemeanor theft and felony burglary. The lesser theft charge was dropped by the prosecutor, and Rawlings was convicted by a jury and sentenced to two to four years in prison for burglary. He appealed.

Idaho Supreme Court Justice Daniel Eismann, writing for a unanimous court in an opinion issued Tuesday, upheld the conviction. Though many states, including Washington, don’t apply their burglary law to entry of a store that’s open to the public, Idaho does, he wrote. Idaho also makes no distinction in its law between residential burglaries, home-invasion burglaries and burglaries at open stores.

Rawlings and his attorney “may not like the fact that retail stores are within the ambit of the statute during business hours, but that is a matter within the discretion of the Legislature,” Eismann wrote. “We must apply the statute as written. If the statute is unwise, the power to correct it resides with the Legislature, not the judiciary.”

Idaho’s first burglary law, enacted in 1864, only applied to night-time entry of a home or tent with intent to commit a crime. In 1887, Idaho’s territorial legislature expanded the law to cover “any house, room, apartment, tenement, shop, warehouse, store, mill, barn, stable, outhouse, or other building, tent, vessel or railroad car.”

With the exception of just one year – 1971 – Idaho’s burglary law has applied to entering an open store during business hours with the intent to steal, ever since 1887, Eismann wrote. The reason for the one-year exception is that in 1971, the Idaho Legislature repealed the state’s burglary law and adopted the Model Penal Code, which excluded “premises (that) are at the time open to the public” from the law.

A year later, Eismann wrote, “The Legislature repealed the Model Penal Code and re-enacted the version of burglary that had been repealed in 1971, so that burglary again included entry, with the required intent, into a store.”

He added, “Considering that shoplifting results in an increased cost of goods to consumers, there is a legitimate interest in discouraging shoplifting from retail stores,” and no reason for the court to overturn the law the Legislature passed.

Rawlings’ attorney, Deputy Kootenai County Public Defender Jay Logsdon, argued Idaho’s burglary law violates the First Amendment by punishing someone for “bad thoughts” at the time they enter a store, and thus has a chilling effect on speech. Eismann said that would assume people would be afraid to enter stores because a police officer might hear them talking about supporting shoplifting on their way in. “This fanciful argument is simply too ridiculous of a hypothesis to support a claim that the statute has a chilling effect upon protected speech,” the justice wrote.

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