Legal Aid Chief Attorney Raises Concerns About Persons Charged With Larcenies Who Are Homeless, Have Mental Health Needs Or Have Substance Abuse Problems

In a Wall Street Journal article on thefts of iPhones and iPads, Steven Banks, The Legal Aid Society's Attorney-in-Chief, raised concerns about persons who are charged with grand larceny of such devices who are homeless, have mental health needs or have substance abuse problems. The Society has long-standing concerns about over-charging and prosecuting New Yorkers who need greater access to supportive services and housing assistance.

The Wall Street Journal
NY Crime
Device Thefts Fueling Rise In Larcenies
New York City Became a Safer Place in the Past 12 Years, Unless You're the Owner of an iPhone or iPad
By Alison Fox
Jan. 12, 2014

New York City became a much safer place in the past 12 years—unless you're the owner of an iPhone or iPad.

While the city saw dramatic decreases in most major crimes during the tenure of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, one category has remained nearly unchanged: grand larcenies.

One driving force, experts and police said, is thieves snatching cellphones and electronic devices—especially Apple products. That type of crime is usually classified as grand larceny in the fourth degree, experts said.

Many of the thefts happen on public transportation, where most people are buried in their devices and aren't paying attention to their surroundings, said Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York Police Department detective. "It's easy pickings," he said.

The number of those crimes reported to police decreased about 1% when comparing 2002 figures to preliminary 2013 figures, according to data provided by the NYPD. The number of those crimes reported to police decreased about 1% when comparing 2002 figures to preliminary 2013 figures, according to data provided by the NYPD.

For those same years, which bookend Mr. Bloomberg's administration, murders decreased about 43%, robberies dropped about 30% and vehicular thefts decreased about 72%, according to the data. The number of grand larcenies has steadily increased each year since 2010, the data show.

Nationwide, grand larcenies are decreasing: There was a nearly 13% drop in the crime comparing 2002 and 2012 figures compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The trend in New York City is notable because it seemed to resist Messrs. Bloomberg's and Kelly's data-driven approach to crime reduction. A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg pointed to past comments of the former mayor and NYPD officials saying that thefts of Apple devices play a major factor in the yearly number of grand larcenies.

A spokeswoman for the current NYPD administration, under Commissioner William Bratton, attributed the trend to the theft of electronic devices—and noted that grand larceny arrests have increased 13% comparing 2012 to 2013. A spokesman the mayor's office referred questions to the NYPD.

Apple and other electronics are often targeted because thieves want the "latest and greatest" technology as much as the next person, experts said.

You'd have a spike in crime when some new thing came along: Michael Jordan sneakers or leather jackets…Walkmans, a new technology," said Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD officer who lectures at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "Just about everybody now has a hand-held mobile device that can be taken."

Apple products are so popular among criminals that the NYPD specifically tracks thefts of that brand, officials said. In 2013, Apple products made up more than 18% of all grand larcenies—that is more than 8,000 devices, according to police. In 2002, there were 25 grand larcenies of Apple products, police said.

A spokeswoman for the company said Apple has "led the industry in helping customers protect their lost or stolen devices" since it launched its "Find My iPhone" app in 2009, which allows users to track a stolen phone and erase personal data remotely.

Combating grand larcenies is complicated because many victims lose interest in finding their phone; they will file a police report but aren't willing to spend the time looking though photographs of potential thieves, Mr. Giacalone said. As of November 2013, about 20% of grand larceny complaints resulted in arrests, according to NYPD statistics.

The NYPD encourages Apple users to activate "Find my iPhone" and created a YouTube video with directions. The department also has a program where people can register their electronic devices at the local precinct, making it easier for police to return it if it is recovered.

Many people charged with fourth degree grand larceny usually don't see jail time; they work with prosecutors and agree to plead guilty to lesser crimes, said Steve Banks, chief attorney for The Legal Aid Society.

In 2012, about 64% of the cases resulted in the defendant pleading to a lesser charge or receiving a dismissal, according to New York state Division of Criminal Justice Services data. Sentences can range from one to four years, said a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney's office.

On Jan. 2, 2012, Luis Robles, 18 years old, grabbed an iPhone from someone's lap at the Dekalb Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, according to a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney. Mr. Robles was charged with grand larceny in the fourth degree, petit larceny and criminal possession of stolen property in the fifth degree.

Mr. Robles and prosecutors reached an agreement: He could plead guilty to petit larceny and the grand larceny charges would be dropped as long as he isn't re-arrested, the spokesman said. He was sentenced to a conditional release, the spokesman said. Mr. Robles declined to comment.

Mr. Banks said the problem may be wider than "rampant consumerism"—many people charged with grand larceny are "homeless, have mental health needs or have substance abuse problems."