Comcast Cablevision, weary of viewers stealing its signals, is using a new state law to crack down on suspected thieves.
Comcast, with 240,000 customers in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, has turned 75 people over to prosecutors since an amnesty program ended in May. Everyone whose case has come to trial has either pleaded guilty, been convicted or accepted probation before judgment, according to a Comcast spokesman. One defendant was sentenced to a six-month jail term.
The new law, which took effect Oct. 1, makes cable fraud easier to prove while making penalties tougher.
"We're not trying to set any records, but if you're stealing and we find you, we will prosecute," said David Nevins, a spokesman for Comcast. He estimated that the company would end up targeting hundreds of people for stealing the company's signal.
Mr. Nevins estimates that cable theft costs the company $7 million to $10 million a year in Maryland alone.
Dean Bardenheuer, assistant engineering manager with Jones Intercable Inc. in Gambrills, a system that serves parts of Anne Arundel County as well as Charles and Calvert counties, said that cable-signal theft is "going to be viewed as more of a crime. In the past, it was, ' It's only cable TV. ' We're going to be getting more respect from the legal system."
So far in Baltimore County, prosecutors are cooperating with Comcast's drive but say the cable company is masterminding the crackdown.
Alexandra N. Williams, chief of the district court division of Baltimore County's state's attorney's office, said Comcast does the preliminary investigative work on complaints. She said prosecutors' role is to confirm evidence and conduct pretrial preparation once Comcast has established probable cause to believe that a suspect has been stealing cable.
The crackdown is the final phase of a three-part plan that Comcast is orchestrating to combat theft. First, Comcast worked with the General Assembly to change the law -- in fact, Comcast's attorneys drafted the new law. Second, it offered a no-questions-asked amnesty to cable thieves in Baltimore and Howard counties -- about 7,000 who turned themselves in during a six-week window last spring. Then it got tough.
"Everything was done by design. . . ." said Ned Kodeck, a Comcast attorney. "The only thing that didn't get done was making cable fraud a felony. Our brethren in the legislature pTC didn't go for that."
Even so, the new law provides for up to five years' imprisonment for offenders who for a fee help others illegally connect to cable, as well as a $5,000 fine. First-time cable thieves who hook themselves up can now get six months in jail or a $1,000 fine; second offenders, a year and $2,500. Either way, it's more than the old maximum of six months in jail and $500 fine for cable thieves.
The new law also shifted the evidence requirements for cable theft trials. Before, a cable company had to prove not only that a homeowner, apartment dweller or business owner had service that he or she didn't pay for, but also that the accused had set out to steal the service.
Usually, Mr. Nevins said, that meant catching people in the act of hooking up their home or business to the cable connection or to a utility pole. Now, once the cable company catches someone with cable service that hasn't been paid for, it's up to the defendant to prove that he or she did not commit a crime to get it.
Mr. Nevins said about two-thirds of the charges so far have been brought against commercial establishments, mostly bars and restaurants that use the cable service to lure patrons. Nearly all those cases have been settled and the court files sealed, he said, because liquor license holders are eager to avoid criminal convictions that could make it hard to keep their licenses.
Most cable theft, however, is committed by private individuals, he said.
"Most people who steal cable would find it unthinkable to steal a candy bar from the neighborhood pharmacy," he said. "But these people find it OK to steal $300 or $400 a year worth of cable services."
Mr. Nevins said a crackdown in Howard County is coming; as in Baltimore County, it was always the plan to follow the no-questions-asked amnesty period with an enforcement blitz.
Harford County has not had an amnesty this year, and the crackdown isn't as focused there as in Comcast's other counties, because Comcast offered amnesty to Harford cable thieves in the spring of 1990.
In Baltimore, city officials say cable theft is less of a problem than in the suburbs because the city cable system uses different technology than suburban counterparts.
Cable theft includes stealing cable service, but it also covers paying for basic service while illegally hooking up to premium channels like Home Box Office and Home Team Sports, or hooking up more than one television to a single cable connection.