Five years after Michigan targeted copper thefts plaguing cities like Detroit and disrupting railroads and utilities, plans to better restrict sales of stolen scrap metal are caught in a legislative fight despite agreement among political leaders and law enforcement that action is needed.
The legislation would tighten rules in what can be a lucrative scrap metal market, giving police and prosecutors more tools to bolster cases against thieves.
Scrapyards would have to take photos or video of metal they buy. Sellers could only be paid by check or money order, or they could redeem their money at an onsite ATM that takes photos of them getting the cash.
Knowingly selling or buying street light poles, guardrails, traffic signs, cemetery plaques and railroad equipment generally would be off limits, too.
But it’s one provision – to make people wait three days for payment for copper wire, air conditioners and catalytic converters – that’s angering scrap buyers and dividing lawmakers.
The House last year voted 98-9 for a bill with the three-day waiting period. The Senate approved the measure 38-0 but said delayed payment would be unnecessary if the scrap/recycling industry instead created a real-time database of each purchase of pertinent items.
With neither side budging in the new year, one potential compromise being floated would nix the three-day waiting period if payments are mailed.
“It’s great for our law enforcement to have an address. No criminal wants to sign the back of a check and go cash it. That’s gold for our prosecutors to go in front of a judge with a signed check,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, who twice has had catalytic converters stolen from her own vehicle.
Tlaib said she opposes talk of setting a $75 threshold, though, under which sellers could still get money on the spot and not have to wait for the mail.
“A criminal’s going to go somewhere, make sure the load is less than $75 and go to the next scrapyard that’s less than a mile away and do the same thing. It’s not a fix,” she said.
In Michigan, especially Detroit, thieves are targeting abandoned dwellings, construction sites and even occupied premises to strip copper wiring, plumbing, window air conditioners and the like.
The state had the ninth-highest number of insurance claims for metal theft in the U.S. in recent years, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Metropolitan Detroit ranked fifth-worst among urban areas.
Current laws subject people who knowingly buy or sell stolen scrap metal to felony penalties. Despite legal requirements that dealers maintain records and sellers show a driver’s license, law enforcement says successfully prosecuting cases remains difficult.
In arguing against the three-day waiting period, industry officials say it would punish law-abiding customers and burden honest businesses with mailing and administrative costs. They say police already have tools at their disposal to investigate metal theft such as sellers’ names, copies of their IDs, thumbprints and license plates.
“You’re taking all these honest, normal people and telling them I can’t pay you for three days,” said Jonathan Raven, a lobbyist for Lansing-based Friedland Industries Inc.
The law up for revision already includes a requirement that buyers hold onto certain items for seven days, which he said should give police departments enough time to follow leads.
“Since the law passed in 2008, it’s been almost impossible to get law enforcement to come out and look at anything,” Raven said.
While Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration and others have spent more than 21/2 years working on the legislation, it’s been in the spotlight of late because both the governor and new Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called for action in their recent annual addresses to residents.
Duggan wants the House, where the bill is pending, to “hang firm” and said recently it’s not so much the three-day waiting period that’s most important, but mailing payments.
“To be able to have a clear paper trail to the seller is really the most critical piece,” he said.
Though the legislation is attracting attention in Detroit, it’s sponsored by a Republican from the Thumb region who heard of a man stealing cable from local wind turbines.
Rep. Paul Muxlow of Brown City said he understands scrap dealers don’t want more government mandates.
“There’s some very good scrap operators, but all of them aren’t. We think there are some quite complicit in this whole deal,” he said.
House leaders are hopeful a compromise is within reach this month while noting concerns over ironing out how to regulate smaller $5 and $10 transactions.
Sen. Virgil Smith, who’s pushing a related bill to ease prosecutors’ evidentiary path in scrap metal cases, said the debate over payments has “taken over” when the focus also should be on funding.
“We thought it was going to work in 2008 and it didn’t work,” he said. “A law’s only as good as its enforcement. We’ve got to put real money behind law enforcement.”
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