King County prosecutors use new unit to crack down on theft suspects

Retail thieves are getting more organized and more aggressive. The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said the criminals are preying on businesses and people, stealing items and information for a quick buck. Now the office is taking a new approach to crack down on theft in the region.

Prosecuting attorney Leesa Manion launched the ‘Economic Crimes and Wage Theft Division,’ among the first of her administration's policy and practice changes.

"Economic crimes are often very difficult to prove, and they’re often very difficult to investigate. We can be a resource to law enforcement, and we can be on the same page with law enforcement so that we can get better outcomes," said Manion. "We can aggregate the value of loss and sometimes take those cases felony for appropriate accountability."

Organized retail theft is a growing issue for businesses across the region. Manion said the goal of the Economic Crimes and Wage Theft Division is to hold thieves accountable.

"They’re not stealing to meet basic needs. They are systematically preying upon businesses large and small. And it’s often the type of behavior that will put a small business out of business, and it scares customers and it scares workers," said Manion. "It’s going to send a strong message that we’re paying attention, and that’s: it’s not okay to prey upon our business community. It’s not okay to put small businesses out of business, it’s not okay to scare customers, it’s not okay to fence stolen merchandise."

In Feb. 2023, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office filed 69 theft or attempted theft charges. Of those cases, 16 were organized retail theft.

"In 2022, we filed twice as many organized retail theft cases than we did in 2021. And it’s because we put a focus on that crime; it’s also because we were trading information with the Seattle City Attorney’s Office and others so that we could crack down on this crime in kind of a regional effort," said Manion.

As part of the Economic Crimes and Wage Theft Division, a group of attorneys will focus on cases of organized retail theft, economic crimes, identity theft, fraud and elder abuse. Manion said the team will also take on cases of wage theft.

"It is underreported, under-investigated, and it disproportionately impacts women, BIPOC and migrant workers. And I heard from the community loud and clear that it is an invisible social, racial, equity issue," said Manion. "There are individuals that are being marginalized because they don’t know how to report wage theft, and they aren’t able to feed their families or care for their families because they’re not getting paid what they should."

The prosecuting attorney said she hopes the new unit will help victims of wage theft learn more about the crime and how to report it to authorities.

"There are some folks who don’t feel safe reporting wage theft. So, how can we make it safe and how can we partner with [the Department of] Labor and Industries? How can we partner with law enforcement and how can we partner with our labor unions?" said Manion. "It’s an area that we have not focused on as an office ever. We have this opportunity to build with law enforcement, but to build with our labor unions and to build with our community as well."

With concerns about theft rising in some communities, questions are also rising about why some of the offenders are released from jail. Manion said make no mistake, her team is dedicated to holding suspects accountable.

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"I think that a lot of individuals have this belief that if someone isn’t held in jail until trial that there’s not accountability. Jail serves a very limited purpose in terms of ensuring that people show up for trial, but there are alternatives and there are other ways to make sure that people show up for their court date," said the prosecuting attorney. "There are definitely individuals causing harm in our community. And we want to bring necessary accountability."