PHOENIX — The state House sent Gov. Jan Brewer a bill Wednesday that would require scrap metal dealers to register with the Arizona Department of Public Safety and would increase penalties for dealers who knowingly purchase stolen materials.
“There’s no area of society that’s not affected by metal theft,” said Rep. Tom Forese, R-Gilbert, author of HB 2262.
Forese began working on scrap metal theft after one of his constituents, Mesa real estate investor Michael Pollack, reported that scrap metal thieves had cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Pollack said he’s not usually a fan of government regulation but that it’s necessary to work with scrap metal dealers to stop theft.
“When someone steals a piece of copper, they didn’t steal it so they could put it up on a mantle and pretend like it’s a trophy,” Pollack said. “They stole it so they could cash it in.”
Pastor Bill Woods of Desert Hope Wesleyan Church in Phoenix is all too familiar with the results of scrap metal theft. The church had to replace 10 air conditioners worth $67,000 after thieves stole their copper coils, he said.
“It causes an awful lot of inconvenience,” Woods said.
Scrap metal theft isn’t limited to air conditioning coils, Forese said, as thieves steal everything from wires to manhole covers.
“It’s not just about copper,” he said. “It’s not just about valuable wires. This affects everything and everybody.”
HB 2262 would require all scrap metal dealers to renew a registration with the Department of Public Safety every two years. All registered dealers would have to keep records of every transaction.
The bill also requires all state law enforcement agencies to register on a website that allows them to send descriptions of stolen materials to all recycling centers and other law enforcement with a 100-mile radius of the theft.
The Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. runs such a site. Gary Bush, the institute’s director of materials theft prevention, said it makes tracking theft much easier than it was during the years he spent as a police officer in Florida.
“It’s critical to get that information out there as soon as possible if you’re going to find the materials,” he said.
Forese’s bill is a first step, said Amber Smith, executive director of the Metropolitan Pima Alliance, which advocates for real estate and development and runs the Pima County Metal Watch Task Force.
“It’s separating law-abiding scrap metal dealers from the unscrupulous dealers,” she said.
However, Smith said the state needs stricter penalties for scrap metal theft. An amendment added to the bill in the Senate would make knowingly buying stolen materials a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $20,000 fine.
The amendment also changed the time for police to follow up on a dealer that violates any part of its registration from 30 days to 15.
Rep. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, originally voted for the bill but voted against it on Wednesday, when the House gave final approval to the bill, because of the Senate amendment. She said it placed too much pressure on police officers.
“We have other things that are more important for police to be doing,” Gonzales said on the floor.
Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, who voted against the bill, said he supports the goal but is concerned about the state government regulating private businesses.
“The state has gone too far in other instances in registering and requiring licenses,” Olson said. “I’m reluctant to go further down that road when we should be going in the reverse direction.”
Also on Brewer’s desk is a Forese proposal that would expand the state’s definition of theft to include stolen metals.
Earlier this month, Brewer signed into law a measure authored by Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, expanding the definition of criminal damage to include tampering with utility property to obtain scrap metal.
Forese said the three bills are a start but that the state needs to continue focusing on enforcing regulations against scrap metal theft. He plans to spend this summer as he did the last one: searching for what else needs to be done to end metal theft.
“It’s not the sexiest bill, and that’s the problem,” he said. “Everyone wants to talk about health care and who can use the bathroom.”