Utah legislature's organized crime subcommittee talks border security, retail theft and gangs

Posted at 3:30 PM, Jun 17, 2024

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Legislature's Organized Crime Subcommittee met for the first time on Monday, with briefings on U.S. border security, retail theft rings, juvenile gangs and human trafficking.

At several points in the meeting, lawmakers criticized the Biden administration's policies on immigration and asylum which they argued has ties to crimes happening in Utah. Congresswoman Celeste Maloy, Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon and Subcommittee Chair Ryan Wilcox all discussed recent trips they've taken to the U.S.-Mexico border where they said they observed cartels looking for ways to bring people and drugs in.

"We need better coordination between the states and the federal government," Congresswoman Maloy told the subcommittee. "Look, I can't sit here and tell you that everything's going to get rosy on the federal side. We've passed bills out of the House, the Senate won't take them up. The Senate's talking about bills the House won't take up. And it wouldn't matter, we could pass all of them, as long as we have a President who won't enforce the asylum rule on the border, we're going to have a problem on the border. But even if we fast forward, say next year, we have another President who's enforcing the laws at the border, we've still got a lot of people here."

The congresswoman pledged to be a liason between states and the federal government as they look for solutions.

Federal border policies aside, the subcommittee itself (convened in a rare move by the legislature) can take testimony and open bill files. Lawmakers signaled they are considering bills to respond quickly to emerging problems.

"For us here in Utah? The most common thing we’re seeing with these traveling groups is straight-up retail theft," said James Russell, who heads the Crimes Against Statewide Economy Task Force in the Utah Attorney General's Office. "Normally what they’re doing is hitting $1,000 to $1,500 per retail store. They’re loading up their vehicle, oftentimes a rental car, as they travel through the state similar to how drug dealers operate."

Russell described a number of different schemes from cosmetics and diabetes test strips being stolen in bulk from retailers, to gas thefts and gift card scams. He called for lawmakers to pass bills making it tougher on those who perpetuate such quick cash operations.

Rep. Wilcox, R-Ogden, suggested legislation would elevate the level of offense if someone is a part of an interstate theft ring.

"Commit a crime in California, if you’re convicted in Colorado and you bring it here? It’s not a first offense," he told FOX 13 News.

The committee was also briefed on labor and sex trafficking in Utah and juvenile gangs.

"I would dare say that 98% of agencies in Utah are not equipped to handle these investigations," Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, who is also a police chief in his day job, said of human trafficking investigations.

Rep. Wilcox asked members of the gang unit for the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office about the impacts of legislative policies on juvenile gangs.

"To what extent do you think these juvenile justice reform or any of those measures have enhanced our gang problems with juveniles?" he asked an officer.

"I want to choose my words careful, but they know there’s not a lot of consequence to their actions," was the reply.

At one point, Monday's meeting was closed to the public as the subcommittee discussed an ongoing police investigation tied to organized crime. No bill can be considered until the 2025 legislative session that begins in January.