Junkyard dog

Our view: Holding scrap metal processors accountable is worthwhile goal, but a proposed law undercuts what Baltimore police and others are already doing

February 23, 2010

Lawmakers in Annapolis ought to follow some legislative equivalent of the physicians' ethical tenet, primum non nocere or "first, do no harm." As various versions of the axiom have only been around since Ancient Greece, perhaps it hasn't gotten on the General Assembly calendar quite yet.

At least that might explain the latest gyrations in the State House over legislation to regulate the scrap metal industry. Step one ought to be to make sure that whatever regulations are proposed, they are at least as effective as what local governments already require.

A bill recently adopted by the Senate would regulate scrap processors, but only in a way that would cause hardship to police in Baltimore and Baltimore County. That's because the measure pre-empts local regulations. If it becomes law, investigators would be less able to monitor scrap transactions in the two jurisdictions where scrap metal theft has become a big problem.

That's unconscionable. Stealing metal has become too common a crime for lawmakers to take tools to fight it out of the hands of police.

During the last five years, incidents of metal theft have grown 500 percent in Baltimore County alone as the market value of metals like copper and aluminum has increased drastically. From yanking copper pipes and wires out of vacant apartments to sawing off the catalytic converters from parked cars, the crime wave has gotten so out of hand that the County Council adopted restrictions three months ago.

No doubt most dealers act honorably, but too often they've proved themselves willing to look the other way when a teenager shows up in a yard with a grocery cart full of ripped-off gutters. When criminals are making the effort to steal street corner light poles, you can bet someone is making it worth their while.

The problem is not merely the theft of valuable metal but the damage the perpetrators do for the sake of their bounty of scrap. To recover $100 worth of metal, they may cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage to private property.

Ideally, tough statewide regulations could help combat the outbreak of metal theft more effectively than the current piecemeal approach. Having differing regulations from county to county can be a hardship to dealers who must sort out differing requirements over such matters as how long to hold an item (and make it available to police inspection) before reselling it.

Anne Arundel County Sen. James E. DeGrange, a Democrat and the bill's co-sponsor, says he's aware of police opposition but believes the regulations represent "a good bit of the requirements needed" and that they might be upgraded sometime in the future. What passed the Senate is "as strong as possible" given opposition by the dealers, he added.

But such an effort need not hurt what police are already doing. Set the requirements as a minimum standard and not the sole standard, and the bill does have merit.

Until that happens, it's better for the legislation to be scrapped by the House than be sold as a solution to fighting crime. Dealers may not like keeping extra records or holding items for police, but until scrap yards no longer fulfill the role of "fence" for thieves -- who may actually be selling someone's fence -- metal theft will continue to be a growing problem for Maryland.

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