State efforts to curb porch theft has another potential victim: delive

The holidays are here and presents are arriving at doorsteps. But for delivery drivers in some states, the season is anything but festive as missing packages could have serious repercussions for them. As researchers at Data & Society conducting ongoing research on delivery drivers, we have found that they are often implicated when a package is missing or stolen. 

Accounts of goods being stolen off doorsteps are now commonplace in local newspapers, neighborhood forums, and Facebook groups, growing alongside e-commerce and pandemic-induced ordering. States and municipalities are introducing legislation to increase penalties for package theft in response to sentiments that porch piracy is on the rise. But this legislation could create more problems than it solves, especially for the workers who serve our neighborhoods. 

As of December 2021, at least a dozen bills* have been introduced across the country that would increase penalties for stealing goods from a doorstep. Many of these re-classify package theft as a felony, a step up from a misdemeanor. This approach is severely misguided for several reasons. First, this opens the door to further over-policing. This makes it substantially more difficult for those affected to seek employment, education, and other opportunities down the road because of the common practice of using criminal background checks. Second, this type of legislation ignores the precarious situation of delivery workers and the history of mistrust of retail workers, a group who are disproportionately people of color

Take the Arkansas bill as an example. In March of 2021, Governor Asa Hutchinson codified a clause that makes theft from a doorstep or delivery vehicle a Class D Felony. For context, other Class D felonies in Arkansas include aggravated assault and breaking and entering. These charges could result in up to six years of jail time and a maximum fine of $10,000. The amendment makes no distinction in the value of the stolen item, meaning that penalties for theft of a $5 eyeshadow and a $2,000 electronic could be the same. 

Legislation passed in other states also adopts or expands harsher punishment for petty theft. Texas, Michigan, Utah, and Oklahoma have all passed legislation increasing penalties for porch theft, though the laws vary in severity and scope.

In 2020, Oklahoma passed a law with a three-strikes logic, where harsher punishments are imposed on those who steal repeatedly. Specifically, repeat convictions elevate the severity of the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony.

The questions we have to ask are: How much of a problem is porch theft? And is the human cost that a felony can carry worth that shipment?

It is already a federal felony to steal mail and packages delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. Yet theft continues, and the postal service Inspector General, who is responsible for enforcing these laws, doesn’t seem to know whether package theft has been on the rise. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

To answer the second question, we need to look at how investigations into porch theft unfold. Police investigations into package theft rely heavily on obtaining footage of the crime. Increasingly, this footage comes from video doorbell cameras like Amazon’s Ring and is the most relied upon method for investigating package theft. One officer from Arkansas’ North Little Rock Police Department described that her department frequently shares footage on social media to help identify suspects of package theft. This raises concerns over inaccurate allegations, especially when law enforcement is relying on footage from low-cost home security cameras which are often glitchy and can produce low-quality visuals.

These bills, and the investigative practices they invite, place delivery workers—particularly gig workers—in a compromising position. These laws extend to all types of deliveries including groceries, implicating food delivery drivers alongside parcel delivery, such as Amazon’s fleet of independent contractors known as Flex drivers.

Through interviews with 17 delivery drivers on various delivery platforms including Amazon Flex, Uber Eats, Instacart, Shipt, and DoorDash as part of a project on worker surveillance, we found that fear of being blamed for stolen or lost packages is universal. Drivers believe that, if a customer accuses them of stealing, the company will take the customer’s word over their own. As one Amazon Flex driver told us, “No matter what, it’s the driver’s fault. That’s Amazon’s philosophy, it’s the driver’s fault [and] the driver will get in trouble for it.” 

This concern is not unfounded as retail companies have long treated employees with almost presumptive suspicion of theft, to the extent that they maintain a database of workers who have been suspected (but not convicted) of theft. This database is a permanent record that follows workers and can lock them out of future employment. 

Working solo, without set routes (in which they could establish relationships with customers) delivery drivers are on their own. Additionally, drivers classified as independent contractors have little to no support from a company when it comes to investigating and disputing a claim. 

One Amazon Flex driver reflects on his experience being falsely accused of stealing a package: “That story always hurts me up to today.” Following the event, there was a time when he debated quitting: “If this is what happens, [it] doesn’t make me feel comfortable at times working for them,” he said.

Platform-based delivery companies boomed during the pandemic, adding thousands of additional freelance drivers. As many people lost their full-time jobs, delivery apps became a quick way to make a little money. As of June 2021, 2.9 million drivers have downloaded the Amazon Flex App. DoorDash has over a million drivers, Instacart has over 500,000 and Target-owned delivery service Shipt currently works with around 200,000 drivers. With millions of drivers dropping off goods, this almost guarantees that some will be pulled into the law enforcement dragnet to recover stolen packages and catch thieves, regardless of whether they are a suspect or not.

As many others have documented, criminal sentences make it harder to access work, housing, and other social services. As the National Employment Law Project writes, “A conviction in one’s past shouldn’t be a life sentence to joblessness.” Any entanglement with law enforcement can have downstream impacts long after someone has paid for their crime. 

This doesn’t even get to the question of whether law enforcement should be investing more of their limited time and resources into investigating package theft. Perhaps this issue should be taken up by the prosperous companies and retailers who have moved into the business of order fulfillment. Regardless, we have collectively increased our dependence on convenient delivery, we need to ask why stealing from the doorstep should be treated so differently from regular theft, and we need to weigh the consequences of this harsh approach and other potential solutions.

This trend will continue into 2022. In January, the Kentucky General Assembly will consider a bill to criminalize package theft from all carriers as a Class D felony. Though we want to protect our goods, we mustn’t resort to ineffective and overly harsh penalties, the consequences of which could fall on an already precarious workforce. Even if such policies are meant to function as a deterrent, there will be real consequences. Longterm, this type of legislation will expand our reliance on mass surveillance, policing, and criminalization with dubious benefits. 

*Proposed or passed legislation increasing penalties for package theft 

  1. Texas, HB 37
  2. Kentucky, BR 370
  3. Michigan, SB 0023
  4. Oklahoma, HB 2777
  5. Arkansas, HB 1317
  6. Utah, SB 156 
  7. California, SB 358
  8. New Jersey, A5072
  9. Pennsylvania, HB 2595
  10. New York, SB 6794
  11. Missouri, HB 1673
  12. Tennessee, SB 1121

Aiha Nyguen is Director of Data & Society’s Labor Futures Team, and Eve Zelickson is a research analyst with the Social Instabilities in Labor Futures Team at Data & Society.