The Times West Virginian

Opinion

December 20, 2012

Message to copper thieves: There’s no profit; you may be killed

Copper theft is more than illegal.

Commission of the crime can lead to the thief being seriously injured or killed.

At around $2.40 a pound with ready availability, the state has had issues with copper theft. Recent incidents took place in Cass, Charleston, Ravenswood and Logan, where a man was electrocuted while trying to steal copper, according to police.

Fortunately, the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill amending the state code to make it easier for law enforcement to keep track of sold copper, and local officials say that it seems to be making a difference.

“You can’t just take stuff in any more without our guys checking it,” said Marion County Sheriff Joe Carpenter. “I think it kinda has helped us out.”

Senate Bill 528, which amends the state code on scrap metal purchasing and sale, requires all scrap metal dealers to register with the secretary of state and provide their “business address, hours of operation, physical address, phone number, facsimile number ... and the name of the owners or principal operators.”

Recycling centers are not charged a fee for registering with the secretary of state’s office.

Basically, this means that the state has a record of everyone legally dealing in scrap metals in the state and makes it easier to ensure that proper record-keeping is taking place.

The bill also provides that anyone selling more than five catalytic converters, special devices that cut down on vehicle pollution, must certify that they may legally sell the objects and provide a thumbprint for records. Catalytic converters contain precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium.

The law making it tougher to profit from copper theft actually helps protect potential thieves.

“Theft of copper isn’t just illegal; it is extremely dangerous and oftentimes fatal,” Secretary of State Natalie E. Tennant said.

“I know of instances where people have lost limbs because of it,” Carpenter added. “Even if you think something’s loose, it could be looking for a ground.

“I’m no electrician but ... if you’re near that power, you’ll become that ground.”

The bill’s principle is to do all possible to shut down the market for stolen copper.

“If there is nowhere to sell the stolen material, it should cut down on these types of crimes,” Tennant said. “By making this database available to the public and to the police, we are helping to make it harder for someone to sell their stolen copper to recycling centers.”

There is evidence that the law is working.

Since it went into effect in June, Marion County has had only a handful of copper thefts. The most high-profile thefts in the past year were in April, when a gang of three men stripped copper from cellphone towers in the county, and August, when a man was caught selling thousands of dollars in copper wire to a local recycling center.

In the latter case, the man was caught because of record-keeping and communication between the center, the business it was stolen from and police. Carpenter said those kinds of records make it much easier for law enforcement to do their jobs.

As the sheriff noted, few owners are “willing to jeopardize” their business by knowingly buying stolen copper.

Possible copper thefts can be reported directly to a West Virginia State Police detachment or by using the website www.scraptheftalert.com. The database can be found on the secretary of state’s website at www.wvsos.com.

Anyone entertaining the thought of copper theft must get the message that they most likely won’t profit from their adventure and there is a real chance they could be killed in the attempt.

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