City’s Shopping Cart Ordinance and the Punishment of Crime Victims

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

I have noted over the years a trend to punish victims of crime. Yes, victims of crime. Punishment of property owners who’s buildings are tagged with graffiti, people who have had firearms stolen and then they were used in crimes, and now it is shopping carts stolen from retailers that have led to the City of Federal Way, Washington to pass an ordinance punishing the victims, the store owners, for having their shopping carts stolen.

While there does exist some limited case law in that a victim cannot be a suspect concurrently, ordinances such as this lead me to believe that the legislature should establish laws mandating that crime victims have a right not to be prosecuted as a result of being crime victims.

In a press release, the City Council of Federal Way announced its pending legislation regarding shopping carts that are stolen from retailers:

City to regulate abandoned shopping carts and curb blight

An ordinance designed to help curb the problem of abandoned shopping carts strewn throughout the city was passed by the Federal Way City Council during the Dec. 4 meeting.

For many years, the City has provided a retrieval service of abandoned shopping carts for free. The work was afforded through a volunteer program comprised of retired police officers and city-owned equipment. However, the age of the volunteers coupled with the amount of work has far exceeded the ability of the City to continue the program.

Unfortunately, shopping carts are being left abandoned across the city at increased numbers, which has become an issue of blight and public safety. The proposed ordinance establishes incentives for retailers to prevent shopping carts from leaving their property, and it imposes fines when shopping carts are retrieved by the City and left unclaimed.

“We will no longer tolerate the blight of shopping carts littering our streets,” Mayor Jim Ferrell said. “We have an obligation to keep our streets clean. We will be working with our retailers and our residents to help accomplish that goal.”

The proposed ordinance was drafted after input from area retailers over two meetings and based on research of neighboring city ordinances related to abandoned shopping carts.

The steps of the proposed ordinance are as follows:

  • The City of Federal Way will pick up abandoned shopping carts along rights-of-way, City-owned properties, and, when given permission, private properties.
  • Carts are then taken to a recovery location
  • The City then contacts the retailers of the abandoned carts and informs them that the City will hold the carts for 14 days.
  • Retailers may pick up their abandoned carts, but will be charged a fee of $25 per cart.
  • If carts are not retrieved by the retailer, the City takes them to a salvage yard where for disposal an additional $25 fee will be imposed.

In its first year of removing shopping carts, 2010, Federal Way Police Department volunteers removed more than 1,200 carts. This year, they are on track to remove about 2,000.

Shopping carts can cost between $75 to $400, and it is estimated that the volunteer-based program has saved retailers about $2.25 million over the course of eight years, according to Brian Davis, Community Development director.

“Area retailers know that this problem is a public nuisance and presents various potential safety and health hazards here in Federal Way,” Davis said. “We’re grateful that they have been receptive and willing to come to the table to talk about solutions during the course of us generating this proposed ordinance.”

The ordinance will take effect on Jan. 7.


To understand this problem more completely, one needs to look to the existing state law regarding shopping cart theft.

RCW 9A.56.270 Shopping cart theft

(1) It is unlawful to do any of the following acts, if a shopping cart has a permanently affixed sign as provided in subsection (2) of this section: (a) To remove a shopping cart from the parking area of a retail establishment with the intent to deprive the owner of the shopping cart the use of the cart; or (b) To be in possession of any shopping cart that has been removed from the parking area of a retail establishment with the intent to deprive the owner of the shopping cart the use of the cart.

(2) This section shall apply only when a shopping cart: (a) Has a sign permanently affixed to it that identifies the owner of the cart or the retailer, or both; (b) notifies the public of the procedure to be utilized for authorized removal of the cart from the premises; (c) notifies the public that the unauthorized removal of the cart from the premises or parking area of the retail establishment, or the unauthorized possession of the cart, is unlawful; and (d) lists a telephone number or address for returning carts removed from the premises or parking area to the owner or retailer.

(3) Any person who violates any provision of this section is guilty of a misdemeanor.

I remember when this statute came into force. Ordinary theft statutes were held not to be applicable to the carts and so a specific statute was enacted. Unfortunately the legislature watered the law down to such a degree by the signage requirements the law is essentially unenforceable. Each shopping cart must have the labeling required or else the law cannot be enforced against the thief.

Thirty years later, through lack of enforceability the problem of shopping carts has again come to the attention of lawmakers. Tired of the scourge of shopping carts marauding about the city, the council has instead chosen to punish the retailers for their stolen property.

I have never seen an ordinance that punishes people for theft like this ordinance.  Essentially it forces the victim to pay for the crime. Twenty Five dollars in each case of theft. It also seems rather open ended in that someone could steal many carts from a retailer in order to have them punished by the city.  Plus, what happens if there are multiple independently owned franchises that use shopping carts labeled identically: how can the city prove direct ownership? And then there is the question about abandoned property.

In practice, what incentive is there for the retailer to label their shopping carts? If it is stolen, the retailer victim will be punished due to the cart having the owner’s label or brand thereon. But to complete the required elements of the state shopping cart theft statute much labeling as stated above shall be affixed to the cart to make the theft enforceable. Retailers are now caught in a bind.

Punishing the victim: It’s the Federal Way.

By Darren Smith

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

43 thoughts on “City’s Shopping Cart Ordinance and the Punishment of Crime Victims”

  1. It is unethical to punish the victims of crime in this manner.

    I foresee the following occurring:

    1. More shopping carts that brake when they go outside an electronic boundary. These carts are very epensive, and therefore increase the cost of the croceries within. That’s disproportionately affects the poor.
    2. Hiring security guards to stop cart theft. The guards will not be allowed to actually do anything other than say, “No. Don’t do that. I’m calling the police.” That will increase the cost of groceries, and disproportionately affect the poor.
    3. If nothing works, retailers may stop providing free convenience shopping carts, requiring shoppers to either carry everything, or bring their own carts. This will disproportionately affect the poor, just like charging for shopping bags in California did.

    OUt here in CA, the only people stealing shopping carts that I have seen are the homeless. With urban sprawl, we don’t really have too many people who walk home from the grocery store, stealing a cart for convenience. If the same scenario exists in Federal Way, then, in essence, state and local policies encourage and enable homelessness, and then they punish the businesses targeted by the homeless theft of carts to pay to clean up part of the mess they caused.

    A further irony here in CA is that they have banned businesses from providing free inexpensive plastic bags, the ones all of us cat owners use to clean litter boxes and line our trash cans. Now, I have o pay for expensive reusable bags, which most people do not know they need to clean regularly to avoid food borne illness. I also have to buy bags to clean the litter box and line trash cans. This disproportionately affects the poor. However, the worst litter bugs are the homeless. There’s garbage, trash, plastic bags, needles, and poop absolutely everywhere, and the wind blows the plastic all around. I have not seen an improvement at all since the bag ban. The homeless are still littering everywhere and pooing on public property. They did not address the root cause, and hurt the poor with no visible improvement in the problem.

    Bureaucrats know no justice. They are unelected, powerful little emperors who are not held accountable for their actions.

    1. In England, there’s the same or slightly larger population of scofflaws as the US has. But shopping cart theft isn’t a major problem. Why?

      British supermarkets almost uniformly require customers who wish to use shopping carts to “unlock” them from a row of carts by inserting a one-pound (about $1.35 as of this writing) coin into the lock chaining each cart to the row of other carts. That requires each shopping cart user to either forfeit the pound if he or she doesn’t re-insert the cart back in the row of parked carts, reinsert the locking chain from the next cart, releasing the pound coin back to the cart user.

      It has the genius of simplicity. Of course, when I saw this work personally, in 1994, the pound was stronger, about $1.70 (part of the reason I was there, as part of an army of contract clinical data analysts from the United States who had the same coding skills as the British employees they replaced during the summer and Bank holidays, but worked comparatively cheaply). I don’t know when it stops paying British shoppers to get their pound coin back at the end of their shopping trip, but I suspect that won’t ever happen.

      Back in the days of the $1.70 pound, it paid local hoodlums to counterfeit pound coins by pouring cheap base metal into molds the size and thickness of pound coins (or so local newspapers told their readers). I’m not sure the economic lines cross that well for $1.35 pounds. But as long as the British supermarket shopper has his hands on that cart, he or she has hands on that real pound coin, and only sloth or stupidity can keep the pound coin from being recovered by the shopper.

      Fake pound coins, by contrast, apparently fool vending machines or bank tellers reliably enough that using them to steal carts didn’t pay when I was in Britain, and I suspect the same holds true now.

      The US Mint makes dollar coins, but a suitable and cheap lock could be made that takes quarters, say four or five at a time. Make returning shopping carts pay customers, and make it cost-prohibitive for thieves, and shopping cart theft will be a thing our grandkids will have to Google.

      1. A deposit system like you describe sounds like a good idea. Did the British government mandate all shops employ this system? I don’t recall a ubiquitous system when last I was there, but it was a long time ago now.

        The cost of upgrading to such a system in the US would be passed on to consumers, just the same as the locking mechanisms. I am not sure which would cost more, a coin deposit or a lock. The auto lock seems like more of a sure thing. Such an upgrade cost would have the greatest impact on poor shoppers at lower end shops.

  2. How about cameras out in the parking lots to Vidio the thieves. Then prosecute then with Visio evidence.


    In the world of Libertarians, big business is always the ‘victim’. Big business is the ‘victim’ of pesky regulators, trial lawyers, labor unions and consumer activists. Businessmen are hardworking family guys besieged by ‘stupid laws’ that make it hard to earn a ‘decent profit’.

    If Supermarkets are the ‘victims’, of thieving customers driving grocery carts off-property, then stores have a responsibility to prevent such thefts from occurring. There are two very simple methods.

    Method 1) Posts Around Store Entrances.

    When I lived in Chicago this was the preferred method in which retailers prevented grocery cart thefts. Strong metal posts, around the store’s main entrance, prevented carts from going to even the parking lot. This may annoy shoppers desiring to drive carts to their cars. But it is totally effective at preventing theft of carts.

    Method 2) Wheel Stoppers

    I’m not sure if “wheel stoppers” is an industry term. But most major grocery stores in L.A. now employ this method. Basically a radio-controlled device, on one wheel of the grocery cart, locks when the cart is driven to the parking lot’s perimeter. This technology has been available for about 15 years at this point. Runaway carts are now fairly rare here in Hollywood.

    But runaway carts ‘were’ a major nuisance here. My building, which stands on a busy thoroughfare, used to have a ‘stack’ of grocery carts jammed into an alcove on the sidewalk in front. It looked like crap!! Abandoned grocery carts were often filled with garbage and, or, lying sideways in the gutter. They were just a stupid blight on the landscape that was completely undesirable!

    This column reminds me why Libertarians can never be taken seriously. Ideologically they are opposed to ‘any’ common sense regulations. Because Libertarian presume that business is always smarter than government.

    Apparently Libertarians are people who never had a stupid boss.

    1. PH – One cannot expect the elderly, pregnant, handicapped, or anyone else with issues to have to go back and forth between their car and the heavily laden shopping cart stuck at the door by posts. Once someone falls or expires from exhaustion, the store would be sued.

      The auto brake carts are in use in CA, but they are expensive. That can impact the lower cost stores such as Dollar Store, Target, Walmart, and other such establishments, again, hitting the poor the most.

      Businesses are as good or evil as the people running them. Those who run a big business are responsible for a great many employees. Those jobs are often lost as brick and mortar stores fall to Amazon and other online competition. Sears and Toys R Us are two recent examples of large corporations, the enemy in some Democrats’ eyes, who went out of business recently.

      Grocery stores seem to be differentiating into the ultra cheap and the ultra expensive (Whole Foods or boutique organic stores.) Any method that increases operating costs gets passed on to consumers. That will be most noticeable in the lower end stores.

      1. Karen, I don’t know where you live, but here in Hollywood abandoned carts were a major nuisance. I’m glad grocery stores now use those auto brakes. And whatever those brakes cost, they probably pay for themselves by preventing loss of carts. So this argument that auto brakes jack up the cost of groceries makes no sense to me.

        1. “So this argument that auto brakes jack up the cost of groceries makes no sense to me.“ OK. Let me explain. The cost of doing business is factored into the cost of goods or services provided. Costs such as stolen carts, fines by the cities, impound fees, recovery fees, security guards, and upgrades to carts such as auto locks are all passed onto customers, whether they are in NoHo or anywhere else.

          Everywhere in CA, the homeless are a major nuisance – they litter, leave infectious waste and needles, and they are sometimes violently mentally ill or high. I don’t see California effectively improving the situation, regardless of San Francisco and LA throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at it annually.

          I see two issues here. One is how can stores effectively cut the costs of stolen shopping carts, and the other is whether a store should be held financially liable for the actions of thieves who steel from them. Investigating the cost benefit analysis of shopping cart modifications such as auto locks is a business decision. Holding a business responsible because people steal from it is unethical.

          This conversation reminds me of the time I pushed a cart outside of a party store to load up my car, only to discover that the flag pole in the cart did not clear the door jam. I thought it was so Moms can see their kids pushing the carts by keeping an eye on the flag. Nope. It was to prevent shopping cart theft. I jammed my back so bad I was in pain for days, and I was just walking at a normal pace. Didn’t sue the store, though, as it should have occurred to me to calculate clearance. The shop lady told me people do that all the time, and sometimes they fall and get hurt. Auto locks can also cause people to trip and fall. Something to think about in sue-happy California.

          I do have fond memories of Hollywood, though. I used to go there frequently, and had fun watching the Parade and crowning of the Queen. I recall getting separated from my group by a herd of Zebras in chaps. Those stripes really are confusing. Hollywood is a lot of fun, but the city is getting seedy in a lot of areas, like so much of CA. Sunset was fun, too.

          1. Karen, I don’t think auto locks were mandated by the state. I think the retailers installed them to prevent lost carts. And yeah, the homeless often fill carts with garbage then leave them wherever.

            In the movie “Princess Diaries II”, I was in a Footman’s costume leading a zebra. I was relieved when they got the shot because zebras are somewhat skittish.

          2. Karen S.,
            – Friday I hit a small bump in the grocery store parking lot, and the wheels locked up.
            I carried the 10-12 grocery bags in two trips to my car…..then was able to drag the cart out of the way.
            No harm done, and fortunately, no one within earshot to hear the cuss words😡I blurted out.

    2. It is clearly a libertarian issue to penalize shopping cart owners for the theft of their property. The libertarian solution is for the city to cease providing the recovery service and let those owners hire help to recover their property – or encourage them to use the same coin-operated locks that British supermarkets use to make it highly uneconomic for those carts to disappear.

      1. It’s a civil libertarian solution, as well, if a city views the theft of private property to be a social problem – and abandonment of shopping carts throughout the community clearly is such a problem – to aggressively seek, arrest and prosecute the thieves themselves.

        Prof. Turley’s right, there’s no moral justification to fine anyone for what thieves do with their property after they steal it. Perhaps easily stealable shopping carts qualify as an “attractive nuisance” and that might be a legal justification for Federal Way’s new law, but by the same token, the municipality isn’t doing a great job of protecting the taxpayers if this problem is so pervasive that property owners must be fined because thieves can steal shopping carts freely and with little risk of arrest or conviction.

        In the best of all possible worlds, the stores would be able to countersue on the grounds the municipality didn’t enforce the laws against theft of these carts. But we live in a country where the same municipality which can sue someone because their property was stolen and abandoned has no actual liability for failing to enforce the law against that theft.

  4. Another way that governments are chasing productive, tax paying businesses, like supermarket chains, out of the city. Then they weep and wail when their city becomes a food desert, and has blocks of boarded up stores, heaps of garbage and ongoing violence.

  5. The solution for stores is simple. Remove any identification from the carts, making it impossible to identify the source of the errant cart. The provides them with an undeniable “not my cart” defense.

  6. Stores will adopt the least cost approach to solve the problem. Barriers to prevent carts from the leaving the store. Remove carts altogether. Require a deposit from customers who want to use a cart. The market usually finds a way to adapt to onerous government meddling.

  7. I see this as another scheme to fine and collect revenue from cash poor local governments.

  8. Punishment of property owners who’s buildings are tagged with graffiti, p


    1. Any concentrated settlement with a population over 25,000 would be divided into three zones. The territory of each zone would consist of Census block groups or clusters of such block groups. Each zone could consist of a multiplicity of enclaves and would not have to be a discrete contiguous bloc. About 15% of the population would be in zone A, about 5% in zone B, and about 80% in zone C.

    2. In order to delineate these zones, the assessment authority would rank-order the Census block groups according to per capita income, lowest to highest. If only household income data be available, rank-order according to that. It would calculate a running balance of the population of the block groups, beginning at the top of the rank order and continuing until the running balance was closest to 15% of the population of the whole settlement; that set of block groups would be zone A. One would resume calculating the running balance until it be closest to 20% of the population of the whole settlement. That additional increment would be zone B. The remaining block groups would be zone C.

    3. Every piece of property would be assessed at least once every six years and the assessed value would be the estimated resale value on the date of the assessment.

    4. The liability of the property holder to the tax collecting local government would be x% of the assessed value of the property in zone C, 0.5x% of the assessed value in zone B, and 0% of the assessed value in zone A. Any government (the federal government excepted) which owned property in a given locality would have a notional liability for its holdings tracked by its general services office, which would maintain a fund for transfers to the local government in question. Any philanthropic corporation liable could pay the local government from a line of credit and then apply for full re-imbursement from the state government (which would collect sales taxes and eschew assessing sales taxes).

    5. State building codes enforced by local governments would set priorities, and in re properties in zone A and zone B, relax certain requirements which would apply in zone C.

    6. The zones would be redrawn every 10 years coincident with the completion of the federal census. Any property-owner faced with a novel tax liability do to the repartition of the territory would be given a two-year grace period ‘ere any the new rate of assessment commences.

    7. Municipalities and school districts with territory in zone A or zone B would be permitted to assess a supplementary sales tax. The cap on the tax rate would be a function of the proportion of the authority’s assessed valuation was to be found in zone A and the proportion to be found in zone B.

    8. In return for the dispensations extended to property holders in zone A and zone B, certain housekeeping chores would be mandatory. One would be repairing broken windows and the other would be sandblasting graffiti off the sides of buildings. Municipal inspectorates would troll such neighborhoods, identify and photograph the issue in question, and issue a citation to the property owner. The property-owner would have x days to fix the damage out of his resources. If he failed to do so, city crews would do so and bill the owner a premium rate.

  9. I live in Washington, less than 100 miles from Federal Way. Yep, but Federal Way isn’t an isolated case. The city of Marysville has, in effect, made it illegal to be homeless and so has the city of Everett (“camping” ordinance” 8.56.010) . Washington seems to have popularized victim punishment.

    1. Liberty2nd – I am going to bet as high as a whole USD that the lawyer you hire sues the city because the cop left the cop car running or keys in the car. They have the “deep pockets” not the thief.

  10. Why don’t they cite the thieves and make them pay a fine toward a fund to return the stolen property?

    1. It is my understanding that finding the thieves is a problem. Shopping cart theft would be pretty low down on a 911 triage. When you see empty shopping carts littering the sidewalk, how do you know who took them? Police could be on the lookout for people pushing shopping carts, and cite them. In CA, those would be homeless people, so I don’t see what good citing would be for areas that encourage homelessness and drug addiction.

      In general, I agree with you that those who break the law should be held accountable for it.

  11. Or get the carts with auto brakes. We have those in Florida but then too Federal Way is an enclave of socialist fascism like Seattle and wondering why their population and property values drop.

      1. Detroit is a crime-ridden latrine. Federal Way is a cheap seats SeaTac suburb where the quality of life is mildly under par. It’s not likely to suffer the sort of feedback loop which ruined the quality of life in Detroit. And, no, the nuisance cost of compliance with this ordinance isn’t going to drive people out of business.

Comments are closed.