2011-08-18 / Local & State

More Pennsylvanian People Being Banned From Chain Stores

By RICH CHOLODOFSKY PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Starr Bowman-Miles stood before a Westmoreland County judge in June and was banned from the largest retail chain in the world.

“Any Wal- Mart? Anywhere in the world?’’ asked her defense lawyer, Greg Cecchetti.

With growing regularity, Common Pleas Court judges in Western Pennsylvania are barring shoplifting defendants from specific retail chains. The restrictions are placed on the thieves under the terms of their probation and parole.

Rather than defendants simply being excluded from one particular establishment, sentencing orders have specified that they stay out of “any Wal-Mart,’’ or “all Kohl’s,’’ and “Giant Eagle stores.’’

In June alone, all four of Westmoreland’s criminal court judges implemented sentences with those broad no-contact orders.

“That is unconscionable and something the appellant courts should look at,’’ Cecchetti said. “I think that is too hard of a condition. It is unfair to a person who wants to shop or buy food or medicine.’’

Bowman-Miles, 27, of Export entered a jail diversionary program for a retail theft charge after she was accused of taking about $192 worth of cosmetics and other products from the Wal-Mart in Delmont and was ordered to serve one year in the program.

She admitted no guilt in the case as part of the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program.

After Cecchetti’s objections to the broad no-contact order, Judge John Blahovec agreed to restrict her only from the store involved with the retail theft count.

Blahovec said he is reconsidering imposing global nocontact orders, which are legal but hard to enforce.

“I don’t think it is enforceable. It’s too broad. It should be limited in scope to protect a victim in a certain case,’’ Blahovec said.

So far, there have been no legal challenges to such orders.

The American Civil Liberties Union hasn’t taken a position on the issue, according to a spokeswoman for its Pennsylvania chapter.

On June 8, Westmoreland Judge Debra Pezze sentenced Bonnie L Mino, 55, of Scottdale to serve one year on probation under the ARD program for first-time, nonviolent offenders. Mino, who was charged with taking about $35 in groceries from a Hempfield Giant Eagle in December, was ordered by Pezze to stay out of all of the chain’s stores. Entry into the ARD program is not an admission of guilt, and a criminal record can be wiped clean if the person successfully completes probation.

Pezze conceded that a nocontact order might be difficult to enforce, but the order can serve as a reason to impose a harsher sentence should a defendant commit another crime.

“If they go back to a store and steal again, then it violates their probation,’’ Pezze said.

No-contact orders issued by Allegheny County judges that don’t specify one store are routinely interpreted by probation officials to include all businesses within a specific chain, said Frank Scherer, a manager with the Allegheny County adult probation office.

Scherer said judges who specifically bar defendants from all stores within a chain do so in cases of repeat offenders.

Allegheny County Judge David Cashman said he typically will order that a defendant stay out of only the store where the theft occurred.

“It’s going to happen anyway. They’ll go there whether you tell them to or not. When I do order someone to stay out of every store, it is generally at the request of the merchant,’’ Cashman said.

Giant Eagle officials said they work with authorities to ensure that people who are barred from the chain are kept out.

“It’s not the easiest to enforce,’’ said Brandon Miller, assistant manager of the Giant Eagle in Irwin. “If we catch them coming back in, we approach them. Generally, we keep an eye out for them.’’

Giant Eagle’s loss prevention department provides his store with photographs of people barred from the chain, he said. Other photos come from neighboring businesses that have been targeted by shoplifters.

National chains such as Wal-Mart, Target and other merchants contacted by the Tribune-Review were reluctant to discuss security issues involved with enforcing no-contact orders.

Barbara Staib, director of communications for the Melville, N.Y.-based National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, said global nocontact orders as part of a probation sentence are rare.

“It’s an interesting new approach to the problem. I haven’t heard many judges are doing that,’’ Staib said.

Instead, retailers across the country are asking civil court judges to implement no trespassing orders against convicted shoplifters to keep them out of the stores. Staib said judges in all 50 states have the ability to impose those orders.

Enforcement of no-contact orders has been a priority in Washington County, said President Judge Debbie O’Dell Senaca.

“If they violate the orders, there are repercussions. Our probation office is very aggressive,’’ she said.

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