Law enforcement: law change gives rise to petty crimes

Keri Thornton | Daily Press

Cherokee County Sheriff's Investigator and Administrative Assistant Kathy Young, left, and Investigator Brad Baker discuss new cases at the sheriff's office Wednesday morning.

As the adage goes, "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime," but law enforcement officials say those who do the crime, generally don't do the time.

Cherokee County and Tahlequah have both seen an increase in petty crimes, and it's usually the same culprits doing the act. Sheriff Jason Chennault and Police Chief Nate King agree the rise in petty crime has a common denominator: The punishment is only a misdemeanor.

The punishment for petit larceny ranges from nothing to one year in jail. However, many misdemeanors are punished with monetary fines.

Shoplifting is usually seen as petit larceny -- the taking of property with no force, which is a misdemeanor and valued under $1,000. When the value of something that is stolen is greater than $1,000, the charge becomes grand larceny and is a felony.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation classifies robbery as taking or attempting to take anything of value from a person by force or violence. Burglary involves a person illegally entering a building in order to commit a crime while inside.

According to oklahomacriminallaw.com, the difference between first and second degree burglary is whether or not the home or building is occupied.

"A person could break into the same house twice and if the first time no one was home and the second time someone was home, for the first time they could only be charged with second degree burglary and for the second time they could be charged with first degree burglary," the website states.

Driving under the influence, driving while impaired, and actual physical control are all different charges -- close in crimes, but different.

"DUI is the actual act of driving down the road, and actual physical control is someone who's parked and still has physical control of the vehicle. They're just not moving," said Chennault.

As of July 2017, possession of methamphetamine is a misdemeanor and the maximum jail time is one year. The maximum fine is $1,000 and the penalty does not change based on the number of times the user is caught.

Hypothetically, if someone is arrested for a small amount of meth 12 different times, he can only be charged with a misdemeanor each time. Under Oklahoma law, methamphetamine is a Schedule 2 drug, and an officer can arrest people if any amount of the drug - even traces or residue amounts - is found in their possession.

After a vote of the people of Oklahoma, the law changed to where the first offense of possession - including marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin - is a misdemeanor. Subsequent offenses for possession are still misdemeanors.

King believes the change in the law plays a big role in the drug problem, as well as other problems related to criminal activity. The chief has said arrests are up 40 percent, burglaries are up 30 percent, and there are at least 20 shoplifting cases a week in Tahlequah.

"I think it's worse, and we are starting to see the effects of drug possession being a misdemeanor no matter what it is," he said.

Chennault said his office follows the statute when it comes to recommending charges.

"Each crime has a list of elements and the deputies have enough experience to know what act fits what crime," said Chennault.

King said whether it's a patrolman or detective, they take a report and investigate before charges are submitted to higher ups.

"We try to determine if it's met the elements of the crime, whether it be a misdemeanor or a felony," he said. "At the end of that process, we complete paperwork to submit to send it to the District Attorney's office."

There is a case delivery sheet requesting certain charges and depending on if someone is arrested, then there is a probable cause affidavit.

"If we didn't arrest anyone and we are wanting to file charges, then we would submit a warrant request affidavit," said King. "Which is where we write our probable cause and document what we believe the anticipated charges will be."

The DA's office reviews the request and if it meets expectations, then charges are filed. If it doesn't, charges are declined or it's sent back to TPD for further investigation.

District 27 District Attorney Jack Thorp gathered the statistics of the top 10 types of charges he saw on his desk in Cherokee County between January 2018 to December 2019.

From highest to lowest, Thorp reported: possession of a controlled dangerous substance (including possession with intent), possession of drug paraphernalia, domestic abuse, resisting/obstructing an officer, DUI, assault and battery, bogus check, actual physical control, larceny of merchandise, and threatening to perform acts of violence.

In 2019, 617 felonies were filed and 545 were disposed of (that's including cases older than 2018), making the average felony disposal 94 percent. Filed misdemeanors in 2018 totaled 1448 and 1196 were disposed, making the average misdemeanor disposal 85 percent. In 2018, 719 felonies were filed and 715 were disposed of, making the average felony disposal 93 percent. Filed misdemeanors in 2019 totaled 1633 and 1259 were disposed of, making the average misdemeanor disposal 84 percent.

"It just seems like, with the changes in the law, that we don't have a lot of teeth to deal with criminals," the Chennault said. "Today, if we arrest someone who is in possession of methamphetamine, we take them to jail or write them a ticket and they're back out on the street before we even get out of the jail."

Chennault said even when possession charges were felonies, it still felt like they were fighting a losing battle.

"It's worse now. There's not an incentive for drug abusers to get clean for themselves and at one point, prison time was a little incentive to get clean, but that's not even on the table anymore," he said.

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