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Monday, February 18, 2013 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

Bill aims to crack down on metal theft

By Mike Faulk
Yakima Herald-Republic

Scrap-metal thieves could face tougher penalties and scrap-metal businesses they try to sell to would face increased regulations under a bipartisan proposal being considered in the Washington Legislature.

House Bill 1552 would require most scrap-metal businesses to obtain and pay a fee for a license to operate from the Department of Licensing. The amount of the fee would be determined by the department at a later date.

Businesses would have to file a $10,000 bond with the department, subscribe to a free online scrap-metal theft-alert system and check customers’ criminal history through a “No-Buy” database the state would create.

At the same time, the state’s theft and malicious-mischief laws would be expanded to include not just the value of property stolen or damaged, but also the cost for repairs in determining penalties for those convicted. For example, theft of materials worth less than $5,000 would merit a third- or second-degree charge, but if the assessed cost of property damage exceeded $5,000, the charge automatically would become first-degree theft.

But Diane Beaman, owner of Poor Boys Auto Wrecking in Yakima, says the proposal would put more regulations on honest business owners and do little to stop those who steal metal or knowingly buy stolen materials.

“That’s only going to keep the honest person honest,” said Beaman, whose business mostly takes in scrap metal from car parts or metal that can be used for vehicles.

“People I know who run similar businesses are going to buy illegal stuff no matter what and just hide it. You’re not going to stop it.”

One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, says metal theft is an ongoing issue the Legislature has to address because criminals adapt to changes in the law and regulations.

“Unfortunately, good business owners have to jump through some hoops so we can stop the bad ones,” said Warnick, who is co-sponsoring the bill with fellow 13th District Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, and 17 other lawmakers.

Yakima County Sheriff’s Chief of Detectives Stew Graham said scrap-metal theft is a major problem in Yakima County in part because it’s so rural. Metal wiring, batteries and other parts are often stolen from irrigation equipment and wind machines, he said, and the damage often isn’t discovered until well after the crime was committed.

“These things happen pretty frequently without someone knowing it,” Graham said Friday. He could not readily provide the number of recent cases of scrap-metal theft in the county.

But thieves aren’t the only ones taking farm equipment to scrap-metal businesses. Steve George, president of the Yakima County chapter of the Washington Farm Bureau, said farmers will take their own outdated equipment to such shops to make some money back.

Knowing which customers are legitimate and which are peddling stolen goods requires more than an eyeball test, Beaman said. Her business and others keep records of who comes in to sell and will conduct their own interrogation before agreeing to buy.

But those practices aren’t uniform.

“All I’m doing is turning money away to people who are going to buy it illegally anyway,” she said.

The bill, which is expected to receive a vote in the House Public Safety Committee on Wednesday, would also establish the state Metal Theft Prevention Authority. The authority would consist of elected officials, law enforcement and private business representatives who would make future recommendations to the Legislature on how to stop or prevent the sale of stolen metal.

Beaman said lawmakers should consider requiring residents to obtain a license from the state to sell significant quantities of scrap metal instead of putting all the responsibility on businesses.

When asked about the idea, Warnick said she was interested in considering such a proposal.

“I think that’s a good idea,” Warnick said. “I don’t think (legitimate sellers) would have a problem filling out another form.”

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