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Woman wrongly accused of shoplifting

No such thing as mistake to zealous security guards

Nonjury trial perpetuates injustice

Washington law makes wrongful prosecutions profitable for stores

I never imagined that I would be writing a letter about criminal system injustice, however, the court system in northern Washington state has compelled me to do so. My family has been subjected to an egregious injustice that has cost us immeasurable mental anguish as well as a sizable cash outlay, due to a system that allows peoples lives to be judged on whims and prejudices instead of law. This injustice would probably not considered to be a significant event by most in the arena of law and order; it is for a alleged shoplifting of a measly $12 shirt. However, to an upper middle class family with a high degree of moral principles that would never find themselves near a courtroom if it weren't for the collective incompetence of various parties, this is an absolute travesty.

I am an engineering professional and my wife is a former paper sales executive who now stays home with our three children, ages 5, 3 and 20 months. Last September, we moved to Bellingham, WA from northern New Jersey, where we both grew up. We bought a beautiful new home overlooking the bay and began to set roots in this appealingly great town. As we settled in over the next few months, we spent approximately $1000 at the Bon Marche, a division of Federated Department Stores.

In January, my wife was shopping specifically for children's clothing at this store with the 3 children. She uses a double wide running stroller for the 2 youngest children. Anybody with young children recognizes that shopping with children of these ages is distracting. She spent a long time in the store collecting items and hanging them via the hangers on the handlebar of the stroller. Towards the end of her shopping, she decided to pick up a turtleneck shirt for herself. She found one on sale for $11.99. This shirt was not on a hanger, so she placed it on the visor area of the stroller, hanging out over the other garments.

She decided to return one of the sweaters that she was going to buy for my eldest because it occurred to her that she had already purchased something similar on a previous excursion. While returning to children's wear, she assisted a lost toddler in finding her mother. Then, it appears (from videotape) that upon removing the hanging sweater from the stroller handlebar, the turtleneck fell further into the visor area. She made her way to check out, but due to store aisle width, could not fit the stroller through to the checkout area. She proceeded to collect the children's hanging garments (the reason she went shopping) and children and pay for the items. This took nearly five minutes during which a video camera was focusing on this turtleneck in the stroller. After paying, she returned to the stroller, loaded up the children and was on her way. She completely forgot about the turtleneck. Rather than store security stopping her and reminding her that the turtleneck was in the stroller so that she could pay for it, they allowed her to walk out of the store and apprehended her like she was some common criminal. The charade started there and hasn't stopped since.

The store security force (Mr. R. Reilley, Ms. M. Kahn) would not listen to common sense nor reason and my family was unduly detained. My wife was subjected to having to breast feed our baby in front of these incompetent people. Following this incident, we were shocked and appalled to receive a $250 bill from the Bon Marche to recover costs associated with this wrongful arrest. Apparently, Washington state has a ludicrous law which makes it financially advantageous for stores to arrest as many people as possible (innocent or otherwise) so they can victimize their alleged perpetrators for mandatory compensation to the store. Although conjecture only, I suspect that it is highly likely that the pay system of these so called security people is related their arrest numbers. Sadly, the police force rubber stamp this kind of injustice and my wife was arrested and read her rights in a classic railroading fashion.

My initial reaction following this event was to just pay the fine and go on with our lives, writing it off as an injustice of society. My wife would have no part of that since she was innocent and felt so deeply wronged. We weren't sleeping, my oldest child was confused about, "what the bad people did to Mommy" and I was having difficulty concentrating on my job. Thus, we hired a lawyer and spoke to a personal friend who is a highly regarded world renowned security/loss prevention expert. Our friend advised us that we had an outstanding civil case against this large department store conglomerate based on many aspects of their poor handling. Having authored many books and served as an expert witness in similar cases, he advised us that these people violated the premise of any major retail chain security policy: that is, prevent the incident; don't sit there watching and try to fabricate an incident. Furthermore, after our hired attorney viewed the videotape, he advised us that it should be open and shut, if they even decide to continue pursuing the case. Thus, we saw an end in sight for both vindication and the opportunity to recoup our financial losses in fighting this injustice.

The other day, we had our day in court. The day was going great. The prosecutor was young, inexperienced and stumbling over his words since he obviously had no case. My lawyer was professional and credible. My wife gave her testimony (aka the truth). The security guard admitted that he assumed my wife stuffed the turtleneck into the stroller visor (and it was far from stuffed; it was in plain sight from a camera angle, not from my wife's stroller angle).

The final statements came. All the prosecution could say was that it was a question of credibility since there was no evidence to support the notion that she intended to steal a garment. My wife is an upstanding citizen in the community who had ample means to pay for a $12 shirt and the security guard was some young kid with a funny looking earring trying to impress his boss. The judge, an unmarried fortysomething woman with no children, stated that there was reasonable plausibility that my wife did intend to steal this garment. What ever happened to "beyond reasonable doubt"? Killers walk our streets because evidence can't be produced to indict them beyond a reasonable doubt. My wife, in innocent person who has done nothing wrong except being overwhelmed while shopping with three small children is being persecuted to no end. We were flabbergasted, disgusted and annoyed.

This was tried in municipal court. Our lawyer advised us that prior to the first of the year, these cases were likely handled in district court. In district court, his experience was that this matter would have been thrown out after the prosecuting attorneys viewed the videotape. The county and city are in a lawsuit over who should be handling these cases so we were thrown to this municipal court. This municipal court doesn't use judges; it uses court commissioners. Deborah Lev was our court commissioner who was, of course, brand new at her job. We do not know what she had against my wife, but it was clearly personal.

Our lawyer, who has had dealings with this person before, told us that she was acting strangely. She seemed bored and was unprofessional. She wouldn't even look at my wife. It seemed as she had made her decision before we even walked into the room. In essence, the courtroom was found to be a private haven for a disgruntled woman without a family to wreak havoc on an innocent family for reasons unknown to us. We have come to learn that her background is in indigent defense. Clearly she could not relate to my wife's case on any level. Our justice system is supposed to protect us. Anyone that can so callously make a drastic error that adversely effects innocent people should not be in the position to make judgments on others.

As a professional engineer, I must abide by a code of ethics and protect the public. I understand that those in the legal profession are also examined on and must practice ethically and protect the public. If I were to make a drastic error on the proportions of Ms. Lev, I would be out of work. Meanwhile, she still sits on a bench.

So, where does that leave us. My wife now has a criminal record. This unsolicited private and public humiliation has left her deeply depressed, breaking out into tears on a daily basis. I am extremely bitter and angry. We both can't sleep. My work is suffering. We love this area and my wife has suggested moving away. We have been robbed of piece of mind, valuable time and thousands of dollars in fines, expenses and attorney fees. We can appeal. Our lawyer advises us that we have what he calls "sufficiency of evidence" in our favor. However, he advises that this would us cost thousands more and, nonetheless, the chances are slim that it would be overturned. We're told that regardless of how completely incompetent the commissioner is, less than 10% of these cases get overturned. Still, there is an old boys network which frightens us.

Thus, justice in Bellingham, WA means robbery of innocent victims. The combined incompetence of a department store security and the court system that is supposed to protect us has taken a law abiding, high tax paying, local economy supporting, charitable family to despair. Do we have thousands of dollars to go on with this charade? Yes, we have investments mostly earmarked for our children's college education. But, for what. We can risk the chance of losing much more of our children's education money for a slim chance of exoneration and final reparation. So, we are at wit's end. Meanwhile, all of the collective incompetence that started this charade continues to prosper and sit in judgment of others.

Is there any hope for justice? Is there anybody out there that can help? Thank you for giving me the opportunity to vent. All and any advice is greatly appreciated.

Story submitted by:
Scott C. Strickling, P.E.

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