Stricter laws for pawnshops under study

March 20, 1994|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

The ring, engraved "American League Championship, Clemens #21," obviously hadn't been won by the man who brought it to a West Baltimore pawnshop last year.

But the pawnbroker bought it anyway, for $300.

The next day, a city detective spotted a description of the ring on a list of pawned items and figured it had to be hot. It was -- stolen in 1987 at the Cross Keys Inn along with the briefcase of Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens.

This time, police recovered the stolen property and returned it to its owner.

But such success stories are limited by outdated city laws, which provide little incentive for pawnbrokers to alert police to suspicious customers. And though police confiscated an estimated $900,000 in stolen goods from Baltimore pawnshops last year, monitoring of the shops has suffered from an understaffed police pawn unit.

Such confiscations -- and the increase in the number of pawnshops in the city from a dozen five years ago to 40 today -- have triggered concern in many Baltimore neighborhoods. In response, the City Council is considering bills to toughen the city's outdated pawn law.

"It's strange that there is a proliferation of such enterprises when other businesses are going out of business. It suggests there's a booming business here, and it's not all aboveboard," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

Throughout Baltimore's neighborhoods -- many hit in recent years by unemployment -- pawnshops are changing the landscape.

In the downtown neighborhood of Ridgely's Delight, where many young professionals live, residents recently found fliers stuffed in their mailboxes from a nearby Cash USA pawnshop. The fliers read: "Wanted TV's, VCR, Stereo's, Cameras, Gold, I'll take nearly anything."

In Hamilton, residents fought unsuccessfully last year to prevent Champion Pawnbroker from replacing an Erol's Video store on the 5500 block of Harford Road. The brightly lighted pawnshop advertises with a neon dollar sign and the words, "checks cashed, discount prices, quick cash."

In Northwest Baltimore, the Howard Park Civic Association is trying to block a proposed pawnshop in the 4600 block of Liberty Heights Ave. Community leaders fear that it would take in merchandise from local burglaries.

The civic association has sent protest letters to city officials, but association board member Thomas Davis Sr. said, "We can't do anything legally to stop it."

That could change. Mrs. Clarke has introduced three bills that would limit the number of new pawnshops and increase the bond needed to operate one from $10,000 to $100,000.

And City Councilman Wilbur "Bill" Cunningham, a 3rd District Democrat, is proposing a bill that would require special zoning approval and a public hearing before a pawnshop could move into a neighborhood.

Today, all a pawnbroker needs is routine zoning clearance to ensure that the business is in a commercial area, a $10,000 bond and a $2,000 licensing fee.

Neighborhood residents are wary of pawnshops, said Mr. Cunningham, because they "are afraid that there will be illegal fencing and the associated traffic that comes with it."

While police and neighborhood leaders worry that pawnshops are accepting stolen merchandise, pawnbrokers argue that they serve a legitimate purpose.

Pawnshops, like check-cashing businesses, allow poor people to get quick cash by pawning their belongings. They can repurchase items in 30 to 60 days at higher prices -- sometimes as much as 30 percent to 40 percent more than the amount for which they were pawned.

"We're the poor man's banker," says Steven Samuelson, president of the Pawnbrokers Business Association, which represents 25 Baltimore pawnshops. His customers, he says, "can't get money between welfare checks by going to a bank for a loan."

Richard Sussman, president of the Maryland Pawn Brokers Association and owner of Northwestern Loan in West Baltimore, says that most pawnbrokers take precautions against buying stolen merchandise.

If someone tries to sell a camera, for example, "We ask what kind of lens it is" to see if the seller is the rightful owner. If Mr. Sussman suspects the person with the camera is a thief, he'll call the police, he said.

He insists the negative perception of pawnbrokers is unwarranted. Pawnshops that buy stolen merchandise, he said, are "the exception, rather than the rule. There are a few bad apples spoiling the reputation of everybody else."

But Sgt. Michael Tabor, who heads the city's pawn unit, said that most pawnbrokers don't call police when a customer brings in items that might be stolen. Police usually find the merchandise in pawnshops later while investigating burglaries and other crimes, said.

"If a guy comes in from Lafayette Homes [public housing project], and he's got $25,000 worth of jewelry, we know something's wrong," Sergeant Tabor said.

Pawnbrokers are required by city law to file daily police reports listing pawned items. They also must report a physical description of each person who pawns an item.

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