New Orleans candy swiper sentenced to year in prison while Orleans DA weighs stiffer sentence _lowres

Jacobia Grimes

Convicting serial shoplifter Jacobia Grimes for stuffing $31 worth of candy into his pockets at a New Orleans dollar store was the easy part.

After a 16-minute bench trial on June 6, Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich found Grimes, 34, guilty of attempted theft at a Dollar General store in December.

Much trickier has been figuring out a proper sentence, Zibilich said Wednesday, after spending weeks searching for wiggle room under a state law that makes felons out of repeat shoplifters — and thus leaves Grimes eligible for a massive prison sentence under Louisiana’s habitual-offender law.

In a partial step toward a resolution, Zibilich on Wednesday sentenced Grimes to a year in prison — the maximum — on the attempted theft count.

The judge rejected an argument by Grimes’ attorneys that a mere attempted theft shouldn’t qualify under a state statute that elevates a third shoplifting offense to a felony. It should be treated as a misdemeanor, attorneys Miles Swanson and Michael Kennedy said.

Zibilich disagreed, citing a 1995 state appeals court ruling in a similar Orleans Parish case, in which a panel of judges found that the statute does apply to attempts.

Still on the table is whether District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office will pursue a higher sentence for Grimes based on his numerous past convictions — most of them for small-time thefts. Such filings leave little discretion to judges; prosecutors must show only that Grimes is the same man whose criminal history reads like a laundry list of theft and drug offenses.

Cannizzaro’s office could seek to have Grimes sentenced as a second or third offender, or even as a “quad” — a four-time offender — which would make him subject to a sentence of 20 years to life.

In a recent letter to The New Orleans Advocate about the case, however, Cannizzaro insisted that “shoplifters will not be doing 20-year sentences,” suggesting he will not seek the “quad” designation. He has not said what sentence he thinks Grimes should get.

Assistant District Attorney Ashley Spears declined to shed any light on the question Wednesday. She said she had prepared a multiple bill against Grimes but was not ready to file it. Zibilich set a new court date for June 24.

In April, Zibilich had pressed both sides to agree on a “split” sentence with some combination of jail time and drug treatment for Grimes, who had his bail revoked in April after testing positive for marijuana, oxycodone, cocaine and opiates.

But the judge, whose scorn for a possible 20-year sentence for a candy thief has drawn national attention, said Wednesday that Grimes’ “deplorable” criminal history makes him ineligible for a specialized drug court — with treatment services — without approval by Cannizzaro’s office.

“I personally spoke to Mr. Cannizzaro, and for whatever reason he’s not going for it, and I can’t do it on my own,” Zibilich said of the drug court option.

Grimes earlier turned down an offer to plead guilty and serve four years as a double offender for the attempted theft, during which a manager at a Dollar General on South Claiborne Avenue spotted him squirreling away the sweets. Grimes never made it out of the store.

Zibilich read Grimes’ lengthy criminal record from the bench Wednesday, rattling off nine convictions — what his attorneys describe as the result of a persistent drug habit.

“The mayor of this city wants (fewer) people incarcerated. It’s costing the citizens way, way, way too much money. But the opposite side of the coin certainly doesn’t give someone like Mr. Grimes carte blanche to continue to commit crimes,” Zibilich said, as the shackled Grimes stood silent.

“The punishment here is not for the $31 worth of candy. The punishment is, he won’t stop, and if Mr. Grimes were to receive a pass today, the message this court would be sending is, ‘Mr. Grimes, go steal some more Baby Ruths. It’s OK.’ And that’s the wrong message for this court to send.”

Grimes’ attorneys said afterward they will try to hash out a deal with Cannizzaro’s office over the next week.

“No one is going to convince me ever that there was a legislative intent for someone to face 20 years to life for stealing $31 in candy bars. That’s just flat stupid,” Kennedy said.

“We also can’t cost taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars and cost Mr. Grimes his life because he has some drug problems or kleptomania.”

Zibilich also sentenced Grimes to 90 days in jail on a drug paraphernalia count related to the same arrest.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.