Hidden Camera Investigation: Why Copper Theft Laws Aren’t Protecting You, Part 2

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(Memphis)  An On Your Side investigation shined a light on the growing problem of copper theft across the MidSouth. 

Our hidden cameras revealed just how easy it is to get around laws aimed at cracking down on the problem. 

We also wanted to find out, who is working on a solution, and if it's one that will really protect victims.

"There's always going to be a market for anything that has value, it just happens to be copper," says Sgt. Clay Aitken of the Shelby County Sheriff's Office A.L.E.R.T Unit.

A metal we associate with a penny brings in top dollar for resellers.

 However, a quick buck for crooks is a costly crime for victims.

Students at Porter Leath American Way Head Start lost valuable instruction time when thieves ripped apart every AC unit to steal the copper.

"The actual incident cost us about $196,000 for replacement, which is bad enough, but you know, what people don't realize is we have 258 children here and they were out of school for an extra nine days," says Executive VP of Development Mike Warr.

For the last three months, WREG On Your Side Investigators have been digging deeper into the problem.

Our hidden camera investigation revealed confusion over the current law, plus, ways to get around it.

James Anthony of Baskin Auto Truck and Tractor says even when thieves get caught, the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

"Back in the old days, you stole, they cut your hand off.  If it was more of that going on instead of slapping their hands, giving them probation, you wouldn't have all the theft going on," Anthony says.

Maybe going medieval isn't the answer, but Anthony is right.

We combed through hundreds of local cases.

Even with a conviction, certain charges only carry only a small amount of jail time, or probation.

In fact, we found multiple offenders charged for scrap metal theft on multiple occasions, like Thomas Butler, Courtney Smith and Barry Sharp. 

Sharp was arrested in October 2010, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 days.

He was arrested again, two months later, pleaded guilty, and got jail credit for his 70 day sentence. 

Dealers can also be charged for knowingly buying, stolen scrap metal, but the DA's office has yet to prosecute such a case.

I asked Sgt. Aitken, "What needs to be done, what do you really need to crack down on this? "I think we need some type of national legislation. The laws could be more strict and give us more teeth as far as prosecution and being able to develop suspects," replied Aitken.

We took this request and our undercover video to Congressman Steve Cohen, (D) Memphis, who says there is potential legislation in the works that he's willing to support.

"Some have suggested not allowing the sale of this, but only to a government agency.  Only a government agency would be permitted to buy copper." The congressman says he hopes it doesn't get to that point, but in the meantime, we need tighter enforcement and more cooperation across state lines.

The bottom line, though, is protecting victims like the kids at Porter Leath.

"For a couple of thousand dollars, the ramifications, there's just no rhyme or reason to it," adds Warr.

The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance also requires dealers to register. 

The commissioner can now fine, and even revoke privileges for dealers who don't comply. 

Spokesperson Christopher Garrett says they also take complaints against dealers, but they need more good ones to rat out the bad ones. 

So far this year, there have only been two complaints filed with the department. Here's a link to the online complaint form.

Future Legislation

Congressman Cohen spoke of potential legislation.  This could come from Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. We're told she's still working with the scrap metal industry on key points.  They want something that would deter crooks, but be business friendly.  Klobuchar introduced a similar bill in 2009, but it never made it out of committee.

What are other cities doing?

Tennessee's current law is similar to many states across the South in that it requires a hold, thumbprint, license, etc.  However, some have taken it a step further.  For example, in Georgia and South Carolina, anyone who wants to recycle scrap metal has to get a permit from their local sheriff's office.  When it comes to theft charges, the Georgia law also includes the cost of repairs in the value, and if that exceeds $500, it's a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

In Alabama, sellers must show proof of purchase, or prove they're in the scrap metal business.  Dealers also have to enter every purchase into a statewide database (that dealers and police have access to) and all transactions must be photographed or video taped.

Is there anything else I can do to protect my property?

It's tough.  Some local law enforcement agencies are asking residents to write down the serial numbers on their AC units.  This could certainly provide some protection, but we saw a case in which some crooks cut the copper from a unit that was bolted to concrete. Some businesses and non-profits have started putting iron cages around the units.  There are even alarm systems on the market to prevent AC thefts, but that too comes with an additional cost.  Cops say new construction and foreclosed properties are always a target, but truth be told, everyone is.