Raising crime to felony enables use of search warrants
By Allison Manning, April 12, 2013
But the 21-year-old Columbus man knew exactly where it was. Using a GPS-based program called Lookout, he could see a green dot on his computer screen locating his Samsung Galaxy smartphone in an apartment complex on Marion Road on the South Side.
“I was pretty dumbfounded by the exactness of it,” Stanley, of the Far West Side, said.
He went to a Columbus police substation on April 1, told officers where his phone was and asked them to go get it. He said officers told him they couldn’t, in part because it was an apartment complex with multiple units.
So the phone with all his emails, his contacts and the photos of his 8-month-old son has stayed missing, though he can track its movements online.
“A cellphone is no longer a cellphone anymore,” he said. “It’s personal. It’s your life.”
Though portable electronic devices and their contents might be priceless to their owners, most are valued at less than $1,000, making stealing them a misdemeanor, not a felony. The threshold for a felony was changed from $500 when House Bill 86 went into effect 18 months ago.
Columbus police want to change that. Division officers have been working with Sen. Jim Hughes, a Republican from Columbus, on Senate Bill 63, which would make theft of a computer or other telecommunications device either a fourth- or fifth-degree felony.
“We’re not expecting these perpetrators to go to prison, but it gives us a little more credibility to do a search warrant, and it might give us fruits of another crime,” said Lt. Robert Strausbaugh, who supervises the Columbus police burglary squad.
The division doesn’t track the number of stolen smartphones or tablets, but an informal tally officers kept last year showed there were 20 reported thefts of such devices last April, 12 in September, 13 in October and six in December.
Besides Lookout, online locating services include Find My iPhone for Apple and Where’s My Droid for Android. Some just show where the phone is at that moment. Others allow the user to take screenshots of what’s being done on the phone or pictures from the phone’s camera, so the thief’s face can be captured.
But those apps don’t do much good if authorities won’t go get the device.
Strausbaugh said all that officers can really do now is knock on the door of where the phone or tablet might be and ask nicely to take a look around. Upgrading the theft to a felony would make it easier to get a search warrant to recover the device.
“It’s not in a good policeman’s nature to say, ‘I can’t do anything,’ ” he said.
Strausbaugh acknowledged that phone theft really isn’t a high-priority crime but is a big deal for the person who loses the phone.
“You’re losing a significant part of your life, and it’s only a misdemeanor,” he said.
The bill has had a hearing in the Senate criminal-justice committee, and Hughes said he hopes to have the full Senate vote on it in May.
Hughes said smartphone theft wasn’t on legislators’ radar when the felony-theft threshold was raised. He noted that phones are becoming more like computers or wallets, with apps that allow the user to pay for items such as Starbucks coffee without getting out cash or a card.
Stanley said he supports any change in the law that might get his phone back and punish the person who’s carrying it around town.
“I’d love to see someone go to jail for stealing my stuff,” he said.