City may crack down on pawnshops

May 17, 1994|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

City officials and local pawnbrokers apparently have reached an agreement to toughen the law that regulates Baltimore's pawnshops by increasing penalties for unscrupulous owners and halting the spread of the businesses.

The proposal would overhaul Baltimore's pawn law for the first time since 1921, said Sgt. Mike Tabor, who oversees the Police Department's pawn unit and is the driving force behind the change.

A hearing on the bill yesterday illustrated the broad agreement among the industry, police and city officials. No one spoke against the bill, which will go to the full City Council next week for a vote.

The bill should eliminate the "fly-by-night pawnbrokers who are in and out of the business," City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said at a hearing, referring to a provision that would boost the bond needed to operate a pawnshop. She sponsored the bill.

Leaders in several neighborhoods have complained that pawnshops moving into their communities prey on the poor and draw criminals seeking places to sell stolen goods.

Pawnbrokers now must report to police a description of every item they purchase, as well as the name and description of the person who pawns the merchandise. Police check the reports for stolen goods from burglaries and other crimes.

Sergeant Tabor's concerns have grown as the number of pawnshops in Baltimore has increased from a dozen five years ago to 42 today. Most of them are in neighborhoods suffering from unemployment.

Many pawnbrokers run legitimate businesses, Sergeant Tabor said, but other operations have become havens for stolen merchandise. Last year, police confiscated an estimated $900,000 in stolen goods from pawnshops, he said.

Baltimore police say they have been hindered by a law that lacks real penalties. Sergeant Tabor told the council's judiciary committee yesterday that pawnbrokers tried in court for infractions of the city's pawn law have been fined only $10.

The proposed bill would increase the fine to as much as $1,000 and would include a prison term of up to six months. It also would limit the number of pawnshops to 42 -- the current number -- and increase the bond required to do business to $50,000 from $10,000.

The proposed law also would set up a three-member review board -- representing the pawnbrokers, the Police Department and the state's attorney's office -- that could ask the mayor to suspend or revoke the license of pawnbrokers who violated the law two or more times in one year.

Currently, the mayor has the authority to revoke a license, but Sergeant Tabor said no mayor has ever put a pawnbroker out of business.

"This will help us eliminate some of the unscrupulous dealers that have entered the business through not so legitimate means," he said.

Mrs. Clarke said the bill "will at least bring us into the 20th century."

The bill has the support of the statewide Maryland Pawn Brokers Association and the Pawnbrokers Business Association, which represents 25 Baltimore pawnshops, Sergeant Tabor said.

"This will help not only the citizens of Baltimore, but will help the pawnbrokers association to police ourselves," said Steven Samuelson, president of the Pawnbrokers Business Association and the owner of the downtown Boston Loan pawn shop.

Richard Sussman, president of the Maryland Pawn Brokers Association and the owner of Northwestern Loan in West Baltimore, said the bill would "eliminate those few pawnbrokers who have given us bad publicity."

The Clarke bill also has prompted interest by the Baltimore County Council in monitoring suburban pawnshops.

Worried that a city limit on new pawnshops would result in more of them moving into the county, Baltimore County Councilman Melvin G. Mintz, D-2nd, has sponsored a resolution asking the county planning board to recommend restrictions on pawnbrokers in the county.

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