Police up in arms over easing pawnshops' load

Bill could hamper recovery of stolen property, they say

March 26, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Four global-positioning system devices, an electronic gaming system and hand tools stolen from several cars.

Thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry pilfered from precious-metal dealers and linked to a man brokering deals in stolen guns.

A $4,500 log splitter dragged out of a fenced-in lot at a Lowe's in Pennsylvania and resold for a few hundred bucks.

These are cases investigated by the Westminster Police Department in Carroll County since a new law took effect in October tightening how pawnshops report transactions to police. Authorities throughout Maryland credit this new law with helping them quickly recover these items and more than $50,000 in other stolen property.

And these are the kinds of cases that police across the state say might not be solved with new legislation winding its way through the Senate in Annapolis. The governor's office says the proposed measure will effectively gut the year-old law by easing one important reporting requirement.

House Bill 752 - which has passed the House and is before a Senate committee - would make it optional for pawnshop dealers to "tag" every single item and input each separately into a computer. It would mean that dealers could, essentially, take a pile of jewelry and list it under one number, instead of labeling each piece.

That makes it easier for the dealers. But it makes it difficult for police, who can now sort through items on their computer without making a trip to the pawnshop, and would have to go through inventory by hand. The law that took effect Oct. 1 made the detailed listings mandatory.

The proposed change, said Westminster Police Capt. Pete D'Antuono, commander of the Criminal Investigation Bureau, "hinders us. It makes everything more cumbersome. We'd be back to looking for needles in haystacks."

D'Antuono remembers years ago when he was a Howard County officer sorting through paperwork in pawnshops "stacked to the ceilings."

Now, pawnshop transactions - which include names, addresses and phone numbers of every buyer and seller - are typed by the dealer into a central computer database. A detective investigating a burglary in Cumberland can quickly see whether the victim's prized necklace was pawned in Ocean City.

But if the burglar takes a pile of jewelry and the pawnshop lists it all as one bulk item, linking the stolen goods to a shop would be "next to impossible," D'Antuono said.

A Maryland state trooper testified against provisions in the bill when it came before the House Economic Matters Committee and hand-delivered a letter warning of dire consequences if the bill passes.

The Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention put together a fact sheet calling on people to "Take Action: Oppose HB 752."

The head of the Maryland Pawnbrokers Association said his group has taken no position on the bill - in fact, Rick Sussman said his group didn't even push for it - but he called opposition by police overblown.

He said most pawnshops deal in transactions of only one or two items, so dealers in most cases would still end up recording individual sales.

Democratic Del. Ruth M. Kirk of Baltimore is the lead sponsor of the bill. She said the idea came from a pawnshop owner in Annapolis who approached her about how difficult it was to sort through piles of small items.

"He told me that what happens is they have to separate all those little pieces, and they are trying to do it different," she said. "He showed me all these little bags they have to separate."

Kirk, who found 13 delegates to co-sponsor the bill, said she didn't believe testimony from police officers at the hearing.

The Assembly can be a busy place, and sometimes bills make it through without much attention. This might be just such a bill.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Democrat from Prince George's County and chair of the committee, said he underestimated the extent of opposition from law enforcement (saying he heard from the governor's office after the bill had passed his committee) and that he would check with the Senate to try to amend it.

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