Plagued by shoplifting, Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries using courts to make offenders pay

Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries is ramping up legal efforts to make chronic shoplifters pay, but a Winnipeg defence lawyer says it's likely not worth the effort.

Efforts to get money from shoplifters a 'colossal waste of time,' defence lawyer says

Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries has previously said shoplifters were becoming increasingly "brazen and dangerous." (Submitted by Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries)

Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries is ramping up legal efforts to make chronic shoplifters pay.

The Crown corporation, beset in recent months by a rise in shoplifting at Liquor Marts, has started registering criminal compensation judgments against convicted thieves in the Court of Queen's Bench.

A review of online court registry records shows it appears to be the first time the company has turned to the civil courts to try and recoup theft-related losses.

A flurry of filings last week saw nine criminal restitution orders filed against six separate people (five men and one woman) on Wednesday alone. Each was endorsed by a provincial court judge as part of the separate criminal sentencing process.

The orders pave the way to allow Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries to try and recoup shoplifting losses through various means, including potential garnishment of wages, seizing assets, or even placing liens on property, according to a Manitoba Justice document detailing what victims can do if court-ordered restitution goes unpaid.

If people don't have a job, if people don't have money, I somehow doubt they'll have expensive luxury items that could be sold for anything in any event.- Defence lawyer Michael Dyck

The total value of judgments filed last week combined is currently just under $13,000. That's a tiny fraction of the $800,000 Manitoba Liquor Mart stores lost to theft in the year between September 2017-18 (0.2 per cent of about $400 million in gross sales).

Most shoplifters poor, addicted

While the civil court judgments survive bankruptcy proceedings, impact credit ratings and essentially follow an offender until they are paid off, a Manitoba defence lawyer believes trying to enforce them won't add up to much.

It's a blood from a stone situation, suggests Michael Dyck of the law firm Rees & Dyck.

Most people who steal from Liquor Marts are either poor, have some kind of addiction that's fuelling their actions, or both, he said.

Manitoba defence lawyer Michael Dyck doesn't believe an effort by Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries to collect on criminal restitution will pay off. (Submitted by Michael Dyck)

"It's unlikely in my mind that the people shoplifting from MLCC have a dollar to their name. So, it seems … like a colossal waste of time to try and proceed with these actions because the people aren't likely in a position to be in a position to pay these amounts."

In addition, many offenders are transient, so Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries will have to work to somehow track them down, Dyck said.

He said he's not seen a similar situation where Sheriffs were dispatched to seize property from a person's home.

"If people don't have a job, if people don't have money, I somehow doubt they'll have expensive luxury items that could be sold for anything in any event," said Dyck.  

Sold bottles to feed gambling addiction

A review of the sentencing hearings for the two highest-value restitution orders hammers home the repeat nature of shoplifting at Liquor Mart Stores, and how getting money — not alcohol — motivates repeat offenders.

One case involves a now 59-year-old man who between 2006 and the end of 2017 ripped off Liquor Marts 47 separate times, often using the same ruse to try and avoid detection.

The man would enter a store, grab the largest possible bottles of liquor and stuff them under his jacket or sweater, prosecutors said. He'd then also grab up a case of beer, approach the cashier and tell the clerk he'd left his wallet in his car.

He'd place the beer down as if to leave it while fetching his wallet, but walk out with the more expensive booze. He'd sell that to get cash to feed a gambling addiction, court heard at his sentencing hearing last May.

"In many ways, and in a perverse way, this became a lifestyle for [him]," defence lawyer Mat Schwartz told Judge Kusham Sharma.

Surveillance video showed he'd usually wear the same jacket or sweater which allowed police to identify him and track his thefts.

Sharma ordered him to serve nine months in jail, less than the year the Crown sought.

She also barred him from going inside any Liquor Mart, beer vendor or private wine store in the province for two years. On top, she also ordered the financial restitution — in his case, $4,666.  

"I'm smart enough to know better," the man told court.

6 thefts in 6 days

In another case, in which Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries is seeking $3,086, a man was left on the hook for losses incurred by him and his co-accused after they were caught ripping off various Liquor Marts six times over six days last August.

The 37-year-old, who has a criminal history stretching back 20 years, sought out and stole higher-end bottles of liquor such as Grey Goose vodka.

While no specific evidence was called at a November sentencing showing the man was also trying to resell the stolen alcohol, Judge Ray Wyant said he suspected that was his ultimate motive.

Maybe I'm getting a little old … but you know in my day, someone would actually stop them, and arrest them and gee, maybe the thefts would stop, but it's a different day.- Judge Ray Wyant 

"Back in the day, we used to call that a heist," Wyant said.

The senior judge said the man was "part and parcel" of the type of suspects arrested in recent months for liquor theft.

Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries has faced public criticism for its hands-off approach to dealing with shoplifters in stores, but said in a fall statement "a policy of non-violent crisis intervention is the norm at retailers across the country."

'If you win the lottery'

Wyant, who has been a judge since 1998 and was a Crown attorney prior, noted how deterrents to shoplifting have changed over time. Thieves today seem very aware they can shoplift at liquor stores and walk out unimpeded, he said.

"Maybe I'm getting a little old … but you know in my day, someone would actually stop them, and arrest them and gee, maybe the thefts would stop, but it's a different day," he said.

Wyant sentenced the man to three months in jail, barred him from going inside a Liquor Mart for a year and ordered he pay back Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries for what he stole.

"They've got a judgment. They can try and get some money from you if you win the lottery or whatever," Wyant said.

Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries does deploy private security in many of its Liquor Marts to act as a visible deterrent and to talk with suspected shoplifters in an effort to stop them.

That approach usually works with "traditional shoplifters," Liquor and Lotteries has said, but added it was seeing a rising number of thieves become "brazen and dangerous" when confronted. 

In a statement Monday, Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries said courts decide whether to order restitution, but where it's part of a sentence, the Crown corporation will continue to file restitution orders. 

"Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries will use all options available to deter thefts in our Liquor Marts," said corporate security and surveillance director Wayne Harrison, in an emailed statement. "Criminal court restitution orders for Liquor Mart thefts are really payable to the people of Manitoba. Filing to continue restitution orders against convicted offenders demonstrates that we take this issue seriously and that there are consequences to committing these crimes." 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.