"In the Business" of Fencing: Making Sense of Federal Sentencing Enhancements for Dealers in Stolen Goods

By Lanter, Dean | Texas Law Review, May 1999 | Go to article overview

"In the Business" of Fencing: Making Sense of Federal Sentencing Enhancements for Dealers in Stolen Goods


Lanter, Dean, Texas Law Review


"[W]hat you gotta remember is that the fence is a businessman. He knows all about business. The thief don't know nothin' about it. "

I. Introduction

The dealer in stolen goods (the fence2) is a person who buys stolen property from thieves and resells it for profit. As such, the fence is a businessman, regardless of whether he also operates a legal commercial business.3 He serves as the middleman between the thief, whose goal is to quickly convert the goods he steals into cash,4 and the willing consumer,5 who is always in search of a discount.6 Simultaneously operating in both the legitimate retail world and the criminal underworld, the fence applies his many skills to successfully exploit both for financial gain. According to one criminologist, the fence could be considered the quintessential businessman.'

As surely as the fence is a businessman, the criminal redistribution of stolen property is a very big business. In 1996, nearly twelve million property offenses were reported, accounting for eighty-eight percent of all crimes reported to law enforcement authorities nationwide.8 Indeed, one reported property crime occurred every three seconds: one burglary occurred every thirteen seconds, one larceny-theft occurred every four seconds, and one motor vehicle theft occurred every twenty-three seconds.9 While this criminal activity translated into an estimated total value of $15.5 billion of property reported stolen, law enforcement agencies recorded only a thirty-eight percent recovery rate for dollar losses in connection with stolen property, leaving approximately $9.61 billion of stolen property successfully redistributed throughout the economy.10 Worse still, even the Justice Department admits that the above statistics of reported theft most likely vastly underestimate the true size and extent of the property crime problem in America." For while the overall clearance rate'2 for reported property crime in 1996 was a mere eighteen percent,'3 the number of property offenders that successfully distribute stolen merchandise through fences may be much greater than these figures indicate because many property crimes are never reported. In fact, the most recent figures from the National Crime Victimization Survey indicate that in 1995 just over twenty-eight million property crimes occurred,'4 over twice the official number reported to law enforcement authorities.'5 As a result, there is no way of knowing exactly how many billions of dollars in stolen property pass through fences annually.

While not all stolen goods are fenced,'6 it is clear that fences do distribute a sizable amount of the fruits associated with minor thefts, are the main outlets of property for thefts involving moderate to large quantities of stolen merchandise, and handle many of the high value, small quantity thefts." The same individual who is more than willing to patronize the fence might also call the police,'8 thus making the fence "the underworld's indispensable man" in the distribution of stolen goods. 19

In 1967 the President's Crime Commission, suspecting that the fence played a much larger role in the world of property crime than had previously been believed, issued the following call to arms: Little research has been done on fencing, despite its central role in professional crime. More information is needed about the nature of the market for illicit goods and the extent to which the demand for various types of goods affects the incidence of theft. More should also be learned about the relationship of legitimate and illegitimate markets. . . . The redistribution of goods through theft might constitute a significant subsidy to certain groups in our society; its curtailment might have significant side effects which should be explored. Finally, it would be desirable to have more information about the organization and operations of large-scale fencing operations, to aid in the development of better law methods of enforcement. …

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