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Proposed law would make stealing an American flag a felony in Arizona

Posted at 9:37 PM, Dec 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-23 00:27:17-05
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) -- The American flag means many things to many people. For some it's a source of pride and a symbol of freedom.
 
According to Arizona State Sen. John Kavanagh (R), stealing that symbol should come with a harsher punishment. 
 
"You're not only stealing a venerated object, but you're stealing somebody's First Amendment right to express themselves," Kavanagh said on a recent appearance on Fox & Friends.
 
Under current state law, stealing an American flag that is valued at less than $1,000 is considered a misdemeanor. Senate Bill 1009, proposed by Kavanagh, would make it a class 6 felony to steal an American flag on display for other than it's retail value.
 
The idea for the legislation came from the Tucson non-profit Flags For the Flagless. Founder Charles Foley, a Tucson Police officer, spends his free time putting American flags on empty flagpoles across southern Arizona. 
 
In the past two years Foley knows of four American flags on display at churches and businesses in Tucson that have been stolen, including one from the J.R. McDade Company on Oracle. 
 
"We're not talking about small flags," Foley said. "These are huge $300, $400, $500 dollar flags. Just the four that I'm aware of, we're talking over $2,000 dollars in flags that have been stolen."
 
When Foley told friend Lori Oien about his experiences with stolen flags, she suggested contacting Senator Kavanagh. 
 
"I think certainly it needs to be a bigger impact then maybe another item in a home," Oien said. "It's a national symbol. It's our American flag."
 
KGUN9 reached out to the Pima County Sheriff's Department, and Deputy Ryan Inglett says the agency doesn't keep statistics for American flag thefts because it doesn't happen often.
 
Tucson attorney Louis Fidel says a felony can have a huge impact on a person's ability to find work, housing, or in some instances receiving government benefits. A class 6 felony can be knocked down to a misdemeanor by a judge, Fidel said. 
 
A misdemeanor charge can carry a possible jail sentence and up to a $2,500 fine, Fidel said. According to Fidel, a felony charge could mean up to 2 years in prison and massive fines, depending on your criminal history.
 
"I'm not aware of huge problem of theft of flags that requires making it a felony, but I imagine that it's related to the symbolism of a flag," Fidel said. 
 
How we protect the flag has recently come into the national spotlight. Last month President-elect Donald Trump posted on Twitter, "Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag. If they do there must be consequences. Perhaps loss of citizenship or a year in jail!"
 
It's unclear what brought on Trump's tweet, but the Supreme Court did decide that flag burning is protected under the First Amendment. 
 
Besides the flag stealing incidents Foley told him about, Kavanagh doesn't know of any other instances in the state.
 
While critics argue the proposed bill is a solution in search of a problem, proponents say it's more about the symbolism of the flag. 
 
"You tell a veteran, you tell a family who has lost someone in battle that this is a waste of time to try to protect the flag," Foley said. "I will give you a list of 100 people that have lost loved ones that will tell you just the opposite." 
 
The bill does not specify how big the flag must be, so technically the law could apply to small flags on display on a desk in in office, for example. However, Senator Kavanagh says the rule is aimed at larger flags that are hung in front of homes and car dealerships. 
 
The Arizona legislature is back in session in January.