License to steal

Our view: Easing pawn shop reporting rules will make stolen items harder to track

March 30, 2010

Anyone who has been a victim of a burglary or robbery can attest to how exceedingly difficult it is to recover one's possessions, even if the perpetrators are eventually caught. By then, more often than not, the stolen goods have long since been resold to unscrupulous black market dealers or pawn shop owners who all too willingly turn a blind eye to where that high-end stereo or piece of heirloom jewelry came from, and who keep only the sketchiest records of such transactions.

Last year, Maryland passed a law requiring pawn shop owners not only to record the names, addresses and phone numbers of customers who trade valuables for quick cash but also to post detailed descriptions of each item they take in hock on a statewide computer registry. The registry allows police investigating a burglary in, say, Baltimore City to see immediately whether the victim's priceless diamond necklace was pawned in Harford County, and it also relieves officers of the tiresome necessity of having to visit every pawnshop in the state to sort through piles of merchandise by hand.

Yet now the General Assembly is being asked to gut this useful piece of legislation, which police say has helped solve dozens of cases that never would have been broken in previous years. A bill sponsored by Baltimore City Del. Ruth M. Kirk would lift the requirement for pawn brokers to list every item they take in separately and instead allow them to record bulk transactions in which dozens of individual items are lumped together under a single descriptive "tag." That would make it virtually impossible for police to trace small valuables such as jewelry or timepieces, and it would effectively give criminals a renewed license to steal.

Delegate Kirk said the idea for the change came from an Annapolis pawnbroker who approached her to complain that the law's reporting requirements were too onerous. It's clear he would much rather the police spent their time looking for a needle in a haystack than have pawnbrokers invest time themselves filling out forms that could lighten the authorities' workload -- and possibly also implicate some of their customers in illegal activities.

But while the pawn shop owner's misgivings are entirely understandable, we're baffled by Ms. Kirk's apparent belief that making stolen items harder to recover is really in the best interest of her constituents, who are likely to be victims of just the sort of petty theft and pilfering the law was designed to combat.

Unfortunately, Ms. Kirk was able to round up enough co-sponsors of this ill-conceived measure to get it passed in the Maryland House of Delegates. Whether that was an oversight committed by lawmakers preoccupied with other matters or merely a legislative glitch in the waning days of a busy session, it should not be allowed to stand.

Even Prince George's County Democratic Del. Dereck E. Davis, who chaired the House committee that approved the bill, now says he underestimated how much it would handicap police in their efforts to combat crime, and he has promised to try to get the Senate to amend it. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a former Baltimore mayor, has also expressed his misgivings over the legislation. If the bill does make it to his desk, we hope he will remember his own crime-fighting efforts on behalf of the city and veto it.

Readers respond

Sounds like Delegate Kirk essentially wants to repeal this helpful bill.

NotableM

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